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Cutty Sark Navigates Its Naughty Past

Jack Bettridge
Posted: January 3, 2014

Discussions of Cutty Sark whisky's connection to the underworld often begin with the 1990 mob film GoodFellas. In one infamous scene, the hapless Spider misunderstands Tommy DeVito's order for a "Cutty and water" and gets shot in the foot and ultimately dumped in a shallow grave for his gaff. But the light Scotch blend with a clipper ship on its bright, yellow label had been mobbed up far longer than that. It is the older, sometimes shady, but ultimately savorier backstory that the newly released "Prohibition Edition" aims to embrace.

First blended in 1923 with a taste profile seemingly aimed at American drinkers (even though—due to Prohibition—that market didn't legally exist), Cutty Sark became an instant favorite on this side of the Atlantic thanks to those bootleggers who dealt in premium product. Foremost among them was Captain William McCoy, a yachtsman/rumrunner so well known for his commitment to eschewing moonshine and counterfeits that the phrase "the real McCoy" was applied to his legitimate product and claimed by others for their own bottlings, whatever the origins.

Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition Blended Scotch Whisky celebrates that dedication to quality—despite that it once flouted a Constitutional amendment. The spirit is blended to "pay tribute to the style of liquid consumed during the 1920s," according to its producer. As such it's more full-bodied than the popular, standard Cutty, which is known for its lighter taste profile. The bottle-opaque with a cork stopper and a faded-looking label-also pays homage to Prohibition-era packaging.

The whisky itself drifts in the direction of the Cutty of old with its heightened alcohol level (100 proof). Yellow Label is now packaged at 80 proof. The former standard for all Cutty products was 86 proof. (The brand also makes Cutty Sark Storm and Cutty Sark 12 Years Old, both at 80 proof, as well as Cutty Sark 18 Years Old, at 86 proof, and Cutty Sark Tam O'Shanter, a 25-year-old, at 93 proof.)

Captain McCoy has recently sailed back into popular consciousness thanks to a fictionalized version of the seaman on HBO's Prohibition-era drama "Boardwalk Empire." The real McCoy—if you will—conducted most of his business at sea, beyond the three-mile limit, to escape jurisdiction of American authorities. Bootleggers would meet his British-registered schooner, Tomoka, in their own vessels. There, they would choose from an array of foreign-made liquors that included Irish and Canadian whisky, and rum. McCoy was said to have been a short-lived agent of London's Berry Bros. & Rudd, which created Cutty Sark. The sailor, who himself did not drink despite how he is portrayed on the television show, was eventually busted by the United States Coast Guard. Even while he was in international waters at the time of his arrest, he took a plea bargain and served nine months in prison, after which he forsook the liquor trade and retired a rich man.

The vessel illustrated on the Cutty label is not McCoy's schooner, but the speedy clipper ship Cutty Sark. The sailboat happened to be visiting London at the time the whisky was conceived. (The Cutty brand is now owned by The Edrington Group, which exclusively produced the whisky for Berry Bros. & Rudd beginning in the 1930s.) That ship's own name was in turn inspired by a witch referred to in the Robert Burns poem "Tam o' Shanter."

That same devilish spirit seems to have pervaded the whisky ever since. Astronaut Gordon Cooper is said to have smuggled a sample bottle of Cutty Sark aboard the Mercury spaceship Sigma 7, piloted by Walter Schirra. Schirra waited, however, to consume the gift until he was safely aboard the recovery ship, USS Kearsarge, also outside U.S. territorial waters at the time.

(Tasting note and cigar pairing on next page)

Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition (100 proof, or 50 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $29.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)

APPEARANCE: Amber/gold with a green tinge. Slow, medium-speed legs.

NOSE: Bready with a hint of fusel oil and light fruit notes, honey and caramel.

PALATE: Honey notes chime in first and morph into caramel and vanilla with a hint of pepper. Then come hard candies that smack of berry and citrus fruits. It fills out with cinnamon, graham cracker and other toasty, hardy flavors that set it far apart from the light, bright flavors of Cutty Yellow Label. Very little peat.

FINISH: More savory notes appear on the finish with a bit of cheddar cheese and some added spice deep into the finale.

Regius White Label Toro by Don Manuel Quesada (6 inches by 50 ring gauge; $7.75; 88 points, July 9 Cigar Insider) A strong smoke from the start, this toro is rich and flavorful with wood and spice, but has some intermittent notes of oily wood and is a touch sharp on the palate. The sweetness of the blend elevates the tart flavors of the cigar to a new place, bringing out toast and nuts. The trade off for the Cutty isn't as pronounced, but does highlight its honey flavors.

Punch Rare Corojo Perfecto (7 inches by 48 ring gauge; $5.30; unrated) A handsomely shaped figurado with charcoal notes offset by chunky wood and toffee notes. Once again the whisky coaxes toast and nuts from the cigar, adding sweet notes and savoriness. The blend gets a bigger boost this time from the cigar, with its spice and cinnamon notes greatly accentuated.

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