Over Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I visited the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. One of my brothers was going to be there with his family for a hockey tournament he plays in every year. Our initial conversation went like this:
Doug: We’re going to Phoenix again for Memorial Day. If you guys aren’t doing anything, you should think about coming out.
Me: Yeah, we might be able to make that work.
Doug: We stay at a pretty sweet resort in Scottsdale. They have good restaurants and several pools. Oh, and they have a Scotch Library with over 200 Scotches.
Me: Whaaaat? Sold!
Within days I had the trip booked and was already trying to figure out how many visits to the Library we could squeeze in during our two and a half days there. Sadly, they’re only open from 5-9 p.m., so I could manage but three visits over two days, but I sampled as many whiskies as I could!
Seriously, this is the Scotch menu.
The Scotch Library is one of the prime features of the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa. It’s staffed by a team of Scotch Ambassadors who have all studied Scotch extensively and can guide you through the substantial, leather-bound menu of offerings.
Our first visit there, we chatted with Guy, who was decked out in full Scottish regalia. I told him that I’ve really been enjoying Islay (pronounced “eye-lay” or “eye-la” if you’re feeling particularly Scottish) whiskies, and that I recently had the Ardbeg Uigeadail (“ooga-doll”) and loved it. He suggested I try the Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which is a cask strength whisky. “Cask strength” means that the whisky is not diluted with water before being bottled – it’s bottled at the level of alcohol at which it comes out of the cask. Most Scotch is 40-43 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Cask strength is usually 50 percent ABV or higher. The Corryveckan is a sturdy 57 percent ABV – it packs a wollop!
My husband chose a Mortlach (“mort-lock”) Rare Old, which is indeed a rare whisky. When we visited the Highlands of Scotland, our bed & breakfast in Dufftown was next-door to the Mortlach distillery, and we had the sublime 15-year-old at a local Dufftown bar during our visit. It’s a well-curated whisky list in the States that includes Mortlach, so we are always on the lookout for it.
My brother, with help from Guy and from us, chose a 14-year-old Caribbean Cask from The Balvenie (put the accent on the second syllable – “bal-VENN-ee”). We had the Caribbean Cask during our trip to Scotland, so we knew we liked it, and I was pretty sure my brother would like it too.
At Guy’s instruction, we first covered our glasses with the palm of our hands and tossed the glass upward so that the whisky wetted our palms. We then rubbed our hands together until they became dry and just a bit sticky. Then we cupped our hands around our noses and breathed in deeply. This maneuver allows you to get a real sense of the scents (see what I did there?) in the whisky, without the alcohol getting in the way. The act of rubbing your hands together causes the alcohol to evaporate, leaving just the other aromas behind.
Next, we took a small sip and held it on our tongues for about 10 seconds to really let it sink in. I’ll tell you, my cask strength felt like it was going to burn a hole in my tongue! After the initial full-strength sip, we diluted with a few drops of water. This cuts some of the stinging alcohol sensation and allows you to taste more of the flavor and less of the burn.
The Corryvreckan, as you would expect from an Islay single malt, is very smoky and earthy. It’s full of coffee, tobacco, and tar flavors, with vanilla and black pepper and chocolate hiding in there too. If you’re a fan of full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, or Zinfandel, I recommend Islay whisky in general, and Ardbeg in particular.
As a Highlands whisky, the Mortlach Rare Old has more fruit and oak aromas and flavors than an Islay whisky. The orchard fruits provide a hint of sweetness, while licorice and toffee flavors give it backbone. If you like fruit-forward Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, or Riesling, I believe a Highlands whisky would be right up your alley.
The Balvenie Caribbean Cask is the sweetest of the three whiskies from our initial visit. The reason it’s called Caribbean Cask is that the whisky finishes its aging process in casks formerly used for Caribbean rum. Rum, of course, is much sweeter than a typical whisky, so the whisky picks up some of the residual sweetness embedded in the wooden cask. You get a lot of honey, toffee, and fruit from the Caribbean Cask whisky. If Gewürtztraminer, Sherry, or Madeira are your thing, I recommend a rum cask-finished whisky for you.
On our second full day in Scottsdale, we managed two visits to the Library – one before dinner, than another after dinner with a large group of my brother’s hockey friends. Inexplicably, there was no Scotch Ambassador on duty that night, but the manager of the main lobby bar, Nick, took such excellent care of us, that it didn’t matter. Even without the kilt and the official title, he definitely knew his whisky.
My first whisky was The Macallan 15-year-old Fine Oak. Even with some added water, I found it too sharp for my palate. Perhaps I should have tried it on the rocks. It has a nice flavor profile, with vanilla, cinnamon, and orange. I think the next time I try The Macallan, I’ll go for the 18-year-old. The older the whisky, the smoother it is.
For my after-dinner round, I went with Talisker 18-year-old, and I was delighted. At 45.8 percent ABV, it had a higher alcohol content than the 43 percent Macallan, but it just went down better, in my opinion. The interesting quality of Talisker is its combination of fruit and smoke. It’s got citrus and orchard fruits up front, but smoke and tar on the finish. Talisker is the only whisky distillery on the Isle of Skye, and the sea is very influential on its products.
My husband’s choices were the Bowmore 18-year-old and The BenRiach Dark Rum 15-year-old. Bowmore is another Islay distillery. Located off the west coast of mainland Scotland (due west of Glasgow), Islay whiskies are heavy with peaty smokiness. When I first became a whisky drinker, I shied away from them, thinking they would be overwhelming. But the second whisky I ever tried was an Islay, and I LOVE THEM! The Bowmore didn’t disappoint in the least.
The BenRiach (“ben-REE-ahck”) is another Speyside distillery, in the Highlands. The whisky is aged in Bourbon barrels, then finished in dark rum casks, which brings out an extra layer of sweetness, and adds toffee, cinnamon, and other spices to the flavor profile.
Of the whiskies we tried over the weekend, the ones I’m most likely to buy are the Talisker 18-year-old, the Bowmore 18-year-old, and the Mortlach Rare Old. If you’re interested in finding a variety of unusual whiskies, and your state will allow incoming liquor shipments, check out the site Flaviar. They’re based in Europe, and they are a members-only liquor club (which is free to join, kind of like shopping at One Kings Lane). They offer tasting packs and a lot of special deals for limited times. And when you buy three bottles, shipping is free! If you use this link to join, you’ll save $10 on your first order, and I’ll get credit too!
A bar like the Scotch Library is an excellent place to get to know many different whiskies without a major investment. Their two-ounce pours range in price from $10 to several hundred dollars for the very rare gems. If I lived in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area, I would seriously be in this place at least once a month to try new things. As it is, I think we’ll just go back for Doug’s hockey tournament next year so we can continue making our way through the catalog!