Glemorangie Goes Against the Grain

A common direction in whisky-making is that the barley strains used in malting are constantly evolving because degraded disease resistance and gradually diminishing yields dictate that use of any one grain type averages less than 10 years of use. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised that Glenmorangie, a distiller renowned for innovation, is bucking the trend with a throwback barley from the 1960s in its latest release.

Túsail, the newest member of the Private Edition collection, takes its name from the Gaelic for "originary," a word which Dr. Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie's director of distilling and whisky creation, says is "a cue to the fact that this is something that used to be used in the agricultural industry many, many years ago." The originary in question is Maris Otter, a strain of winter wheat that was used in English craft brewing a half century ago, especially for cask-conditioned ale. It was abandoned in the late 1980s as tastes changed and the industry turned to grain with greater efficiencies. However, a pair of seed merchants revived the two-row barley, rejuvenating its standards in the 1990s.

Lumsden says that the whisky is a result of experiments he started years ago using winter wheat, which is planted in November and has smaller yields than those grown in the spring. He was inspired by the efforts to revive Maris Otter to try the barley in whisky in hopes that its deep flavors would create "an intriguing contrast to Glenmorangie's more delicate house style."

He was forced to approach farmers in England to have the grain grown specifically for him. "Unfortunately some of these varieties [that aren't commonly grown] have certain attributes that are very desirable to the brewer or distiller. So when they are replaced it is not actually better. At the end of the day, if we want the farmers to grow what we want we would have to pay a very substantial premium, which is exactly what I had to do for the Maris Otter."

Of course, that is reflected in the higher price of the Túsail, but it also explains why the whisky will be available only in very limited qualities (4,800 nine-liter cases) and will not be repeated. Along with the added cost for the barley itself, the grain yields substantially less whisky. The distiller normally expects to get 410 liters of alcohol for each ton of malt he mashes, but with Maris Otter that yield fell to 365, an 11 percent drop. "It wouldn't be realistic for me to use that all the time." Lumsden notes that even if he decided "cost be damned," farmers couldn't make enough the grain to fulfill his needs for even one month's production a year.

While Glenmorangie is known for the many whiskies they finish in alternative casks, the Túsail was produced in substantially the same way as Glenmorangie's Bourbon-barrel-aged standard brand, called The Original. Lumsden says he did so as a kind of control, so that he could see if there really a difference implied by the change in barley. There was.

Whisky wisdom often attributes between 60 and 80 percent of the taste of the spirit to the casks it is made in. Coming away from his experiment, Lumsden feels that, while he normally gives a 60/40 split between wood and other factors, in this case he feels like the division is closer to 50/50. He points out that the only difference between the way The Original and Túsail are produced is that the latter's barley was prepared with a traditional floor malting—a kind of nod to its heritage. While the difference adds a couple of days to the grain's germination, Lumsden didn't think that that it would have had a profound effect.

Global master brand ambassador David Blackmore says that the one-off aspect of Túsail is valuable as a "halo effect" for Glenmorangie's other regularly available products. "The Private Edition, from a marketing perspective, was set up to highlight interesting, innovative whiskies that we would never intend to have as a full part of the range." He adds, "But anyone with taste buds in their heads will love it."

The Private Edition collection has so far included six whiskies, with every other one relying on a special wood finish. Lumsden says that he has the next five years of editions planned and in the pipeline. "The next year's one, for example, is a finish, but it's an absolutely bonkers type of cask." But while the brand is known for research and development, innovation and trial, the whisky-maker says that at least 50 percent of the workload goes into assuring the quality of The Original.

We decided to taste Túsail alongside The Original to see how they stacked up.

Glenmorangie The Original (86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume; 10 years old; $39.99 a 750 ml. bottle)

APPEARANCE: Light, lemon yellow color with teardrop legs.

NOSE: A bouquet of flowers meets an underpinning of meaty fruits and berries.

PALATE: Floral characters hang on, but are overtaken by its fruitier side and a big dose of honey. Don't underestimate its complexity: hints of vanilla, toffee and lemon lap at the palate, as well.

FINISH: While honey quality is the most insistent quality on the finish, notes of cocoa and malt arise as well.

Glenmorangie Túsail Private Edition (92 proof, or 46 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $99.99 a 750 ml. bottle)

APPEARANCE: Color is quite similar to the Original, while the legs are a bit slower and tighter.

NOSE: While the flowers aren't as pronounced, this bouquet has a richer, maltier aroma with honey, caramel and berries. It also has faint wisps of the woodiness of a sawmill.

PALATE: The difference from The Original is immediately apparent on the tongue. While the Túsail cleaves to the floral, fruity light-bodied charms of Glenmorangie, it introduces a savory, cereal element that flawlessly dovetails with the base arrangement, giving it a heftier, heartier feel. There's toffee, caramel and vanilla in abundance, plus a pinch of chocolate. The honey morphs into something like molasses and orange marmalade. It also has a spicy, citric side, with cinnamon, ginger and lemon.

FINISH: Again the finish is dominated by honey, but this time with a strong element of toasted bread, perhaps sprinkled with cinnamon.

CIGAR PAIRING: Casa Fernandez Miami Toro Reserva (made in Miami; 6 inches by 54 ring gauge: $9.56; 90 points, Cigar Aficionado, February 2015) We thought of this cigar as it seems to bridge the similar tasting camps as the Túsail. There's a complex array of nutty notes in this cigar ranging from walnut and almond to peanut and cashew all interwoven with honey and citrus.

With The Original: The Casa Fernandez awakens under the influence of The Original's honey flavors, gaining a much richer base of sweetness and taking on some cocoa notes, as well. The whisky shows off more of its fruit, particularly pear and peach tones. It's a solid matchup.

With Túsail: This was the winner, however. The pairing takes off right from the start and achieves fairly everything we had hoped. The multiple nuts on the cigar bring extra dimension to the whisky and shine through better themselves. The Túsail's toast, honey and fruit grow and boost those aspects on the cigar. Bonus: a leather quality appears in both that was not earlier detected. In short, this is an excellent marriage.