Whisky Review Round Up: Usquaebach (Reserve,‘Old-Rare’ Superior Blend)

By Aaron Knapp / September 30, 2016
image via Aaron Knapp

image via Aaron Knapp

Editor’s Note: These whiskies were provided to us as free samples to review by the party behind them. The Whiskey Wash, while appreciative of this, did keep full independent editorial control over this article.

As a longtime history enthusiast, I’ve always found myself dangerously disarmed by the promotional pitch that a product has a direct line to the past and that – especially with something like whiskey – the product gives modern consumers about the same experience as those consuming it hundreds of years ago.

Yet, even while keeping up a skeptical guard, Usquaebach Reserve Blended Scotch Whisky and ‘Old-Rare’ Superior Blended Scotch Whisky, both purportedly made of blends dating back to the 18th Century, would have likely taken me hook, line, and sinker by their spicy, sweet flavor and smooth finish, regardless of the history of the brand.

With blends going back to the 1700s and a name trademarked in 1877, the brand (produced by Hunter Laing & Co.) seems built on being a part of the history of Scotch and the Scottish Highlands. Even the brand name, Usquaebach, is derived from the Gaelic phrase “uisge beatha,” meaning “water of life” and the origin of the word “whiskey,” according to the Reserve label.

Usquaebach Reserve, the more affordable of the two bottles I tried, does not have an age label, but product descriptions from the distillery explain that the blend is “over 50% quality single malts” aged 16 to 18 years, rounded off with younger malts, and “blended with the finest grain whisky.”

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The “Old-Rare” – with a much more complex flavor profile at roughly triple the price of the Reserve – is a blend of 41 single malts up to 20 years in age with about 15 percent “high-quality grain whisky in the blend,” according to Usquaebach’s. As a further historical throwback, Old-Rare is sold in a 750-milliliter porcelain flagon.

Tasting Notes: Usquaebach Reserve

Vital Stats: 43 percent alcohol by volume, blend of 16 to 18-year-old single malts and balanced out by younger malts.

Appearance: Comes in a regal, translucent-green, glass bottle with labels designed to look like aged parchment. In the glass, Usquaebach takes on the bright gold color of honey.

Nose: A breath in brings first a smooth, sweet vanilla scent, which matures into a growing floral aroma that tickles the nose with hints of citrus.

Palate: Suavely eases onto the tongue with sweetness and texture of a creamy caramel with a hint of smoke. While dominated by the sweet caramel flavor, the whisky gives light tingles to the tongue and sides of the mouth while taking on a faint undertone of mulling spices. Leaves the tongue with faint tingles, but mostly the caramelly sweetness persists for another minute or so.

Final Thoughts:

While not extraordinarily distinctive or complex, the Usquaebach a reliable choice of scotch with a lot of bang for its buck, particularly if you’re looking for a sweeter scotch.  It has a bit of a bite to it with a touch of smoke – likely far too sweet those more disposed to a peaty scotch – but by and large, Usquaebach has a friendly, easy-going character that novices and long-time scotch drinkers alike can appreciate.

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Tasting Notes: Usquaebach ‘Old-Rare’

Vital Stats: 43 percent alcohol by volume, blend of 41 single malt whiskies up 20 years old with blended with two single grain whiskies aged in sherry oak hogshead casks making up about 15 percent of the blend.

Appearance: Packaged in a quaint, white and goldenrod crock – usually 750 milliliters, but the sample came in a miniature, 50-milliliter version of the crock.

Nose: Like the Reserve, the initial whiff of Old-Rare takes on the aroma of vanilla, but this scent is deeper, earthier, and more complex, with sweetness tempered by a hint of clove and nutmeg.

Palate: The first taste hits the tongue like a mellow honey, but again that sweetness is gradually brought in line by building taste of baking spices and allspice with a faint bite as Old-Rare gradually coats the tongue. Swallowing leaves the tongue coated with earthy, mildly-spicy sweetness and begs for another sip.

Final Thoughts:

Still on the sweeter side of Scotch, Usquaebach Old-Rare is quite complex and rich compared to its sister Usquaebach Reserve. While both are dominated by a sweet, smooth vanilla flavor, Old-Rare evokes spicy, earthy flavors that leave the Reserve tasting a bit bland in comparison. Although Old-Rare is unsurprisingly triple the price, a taste may make it difficult to go back to its less expensive counterpart.