Whisky Review: The Exceptional Malt

Don Sutcliffe, managing director of Craft Distillers, and Willie Phillips, former managing director of The Macallan, joined forces to make this small batch blended malt Scotch whisky. Both men had been dreaming about putting together a series of small batch creations since autumn of 1987.

In the spring of 2010, they decided to make their dream a reality. First came sourcing and selecting barrels, and then it was time to figure out how all of the puzzle pieces should fit together.

Today, I will be tasting the first edition, which consists of a sixteen-year-old Ben Nevis, a first-fill sherry butt of Glenburgie, and a vatted barrel of Balvenie, Kininvie, and Glenfiddich. In addition, there is a thirteen-year-old “mystery” Speyside, a twenty-five-year Speyburn, and finally a thirty-year-old Macallan.

It’s amazing that all of these interesting whiskies were aged in a first-fill Oloroso sherry cask. I can’t imagine doing that with a blend which contained more than the tiniest dash of thirty year-old Macallan. At any rate, this experiment already sounds interesting, if not downright promising.

Exceptional Malt

Tasting Notes: The Exceptional Malt

Vital Statistics: Sufcliffe & Son’s “The Exceptional Malt”; 750ml; 43% ABV/86 proof; average price was $110 upon its release; occasionally this product is available at auction, but nowhere in the retail market.

Appearance: Deep gold in color. The sherry cask in which the blend was aged has certainly left its mark. As for the legs, I remain unimpressed. They seem rather youngish. If you are confused by my statement, then I will add that old legs in the whisky world are the most beautiful, unlike picturesque young legs (18-21 years of age) in real life. Then again, 18-21 years of age is considered fairly old for a whisky these days. Ha! Well, you get the idea. As with String Theory, or the Guinness Book of World Records’ largest ball of twine, too much scrutiny dispels the illusion of greatness.

Nose: I agree with the label’s assertion that the nose features baked citrus, berry, and red fruit, in addition to “warm crumble” of the cobbler variety. However, there are also a few less-than-mouth-watering notes in my glass . . . such as the eau de toilette of musty muslin curtains, rhubarb stalk, and scorched late-summer lawn.

Mouth: I seem to taste a hint of Ben Nevis, so I guess the attenuation isn’t all that scant, after all. In fact, as chance would have it, I just finished a bottle of Exclusive Malts 17 Year Old Ben Nevis a few weeks ago. I liked that very much, indeed. Ben Nevis is an oft-overlooked distillery that’s starting to turn out very interesting casks, here and there.

A kind of warm, buttery mouth-feel has now asserted its dominance. With each subsequent sip, I’m being slowly won over by the blend, like an extra soft comforter on a bed, or a well-worn flannel bathrobe. Yes, this whisky is downright cozy. Now, there are notes of Scottish shortbread, clover thistle nectar, Oloroso (but of course), and stewed plum, such as one finds in Moroccan poultry and lamb dishes. No raisins to speak of, however, which seems a bit odd. Normally, a plum essence tends to arrive with golden raisin in most of the Scotch whiskies that I’ve tasted over the years.

It goes without saying that even a splash of water tends to weaken this whisky’s joie de vivre. The finish, while fairly clipped on the front and mid palates, is still fairly satisfying. In fact, the back of the palate lingers on and on. It’s not up front and in your face, but it’s there all the same, refusing to give up the ghost prematurely.

The Takeaway

One thing that I find particularly interesting involves Sutcliffe's assertion that he attempted to make the best whisky each time he blended the small batches. According to him, this not only would cause different years of The Exceptional Grain to vary in terms of smell and taste, it would also cause individual bottles within each year to vary somewhat from each other.

Personally, I find my bottle of The Exceptional Malt to be a fairly successful experiment that commanded a great deal of fanfare at the time of its release (now over eight years ago). Despite all of the hullaballoo, however, I wouldn't recommending paying over $120 for a bottle at auction.

3.5
User Rating 5 (2 votes)
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About the author

Whisky Kirk

Whisky Kirk is a writer who specializes in fiction and nonfiction dealing with the supernatural, cultural programming, and the entertainment industry. He also plays drums in rock, jazz, Latin, and ancient native forms of music. Kirk lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches creative writing at the college level as his “day job.” For him, whisk[e]y is an obsession that spans decades.