Straight from the Barrel: Famous Grouse 12- and 18-year-old Vatted Malts

Just when we start to forget about Scotland's other whisky, another vatted malt comes along to remind us how good these drinks that bridge the gap between single malts and blends can be. And once again, it's The Famous Grouse swelling the slender category's ranks by two.

Come September, the premium-blended-Scotch maker will pour a 12- and an 18-year-old malt mixture into most American markets. The Famous Grouse brought a 10-year-old malt here a year ago, but the release was only in limited markets, and it was soon withdrawn by the company. This time around it has doubled up with older whiskies.

Sometimes called "pure malts" and, in the case of these entries, simply "malt whiskies," vatted malts represent a third Scotch whisky category. Because they meld malt whiskies from several distilleries to make one quaff, vatted malts aren't single malts. Because they contain only malt -- no grain whisky -- they are not blends. The charm of vatted malts is that they join the complexity of a blend with the edginess of a single malt. Well-known in Britain, where vatted-malt releases sometimes commemorate momentous events, the category is woefully underrepresented in America. Johnnie Walker Green Label, recently introduced to the United States, is a vatted malt, as was the Century of Malts, which Chivas Regal marketed a few years back.

The Famous Grouse allows that the renowned master blender John Ramsay uses Macallan (Speyside) and Highland Park (Orkney) in the mixture for its malts. Ramsay has said in the past that he uses Glengoyne (Highlands) in all his blends, which as well as The Famous Grouse include Cutty Sark and Lang's Supreme. He has also said that his decisions as to constituent malts are often based not on regions, but the wood that whiskies have aged in, indicating that The Famous Grouse blends are high in Spanish oak-matured whisky. A tasting of his malt whiskies indicates he's stayed true to that basic formula.

The 12-year-old (80 proof, $34.99) has a rich brass color. The nose has a floral core with nutty peat, toasty wood and meaty fruit. The flowers touch the tip of the tongue as you taste it and blossom into licorice that fills the mouth before ending with a snap of Sherry and toffee. The medium-long, sweet finish is reminiscent of the licorice.

The 18-year-old (86 proof, $54.99) is medium amber in color. The nose is similar to its younger brother's, but richer and warmer and with sweeter fruit notes. In the mouth, it is utterly full bodied. The licorice of the younger malt comes right through, but is followed by a savory banana flavor with hints of crème brulée and a strong taste of Christmas pudding. The finish goes on and on, both spicy and sweet. You'd have to be tongue-dead not to appreciate this.

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