There is a reflex that aligns certain drinks with specific times of the year. Pimm’s is so associated with summer, for example, that its makers brought out a “winter cup” version. There are also flavour-based correlations between seasons and spirits. Some smell like spring, filled with scents of green apples, cut grass and flowers. Others are distillations of winter, smelling of raisins, clove-studded oranges, mulled spices, Christmas cake, earth and wreathing smoke.
Their use changes as well. While spring-like spirits are aperitifs, winter examples are best after the meal. The energy of spring, the externalised aromas of the world waking up, has been replaced by the internal, by fireside warmth and contemplation. The drinks are thicker, darker, deeper.
This shift also reflects how they are made. Spring drinks are light in terms of oaking. As the year turns, the congress between oak and spirit becomes greater.
This is also a time of indulgence, in terms of the richness of the drinks we consume and the generosity of our spend. We want to share, we want the best. It is a time of luxury. Wine has long played in this area, Cognac too, but malt whisky is catching up and many of these top-end malts combine winter flavours and luxurious indulgence.
The new luxury template has been established by Macallan, whose latest partnership with Lalique is a 55-year-old in a specially designed crystal decanter. For those who baulk at the £15,000 price tag, the 18-year-old sherry cask is the distillery’s definitive bottling expression.
In a similar vein is Glenfarclas, which as well as exemplary 30-year-old and 40-year-old expressions also offers a series of vintage bottlings, “The Family Casks.” For me, Farclas is more crepuscular than Macallan, with notes of Turkish delight, espresso and bitter chocolate. The final member of my Speyside triumvirate is Glenrothes whose elegant, complex vintage bottlings—1973, 1979 and 1985 being the finest—show a mix of sweet spice, concentrated fruits and vanilla.
If a hint of smoke is needed then head for Highland Park, where the heathery fumes of Orcadian peat play alongside orange peel accents, treacle and sultana in the 40-year-old, although the superbly balanced 21-year-old remains the bargain of the range.
There’s another aroma shared by some of these spirits, shown in the recently released 1976 vintage from Glenglassaugh, an oxidised, feral note of field mushroom and supple leather. It’s called rancio and is a link between old Scotch and equally old Cognac.
Rancio only appears after long-term ageing. Cognac has the greatest examples and the time has never been better for exploring the releases from less mainstream houses.
If money is no object, then Delamain’s Voyage evokes leather, tonka bean, vetiver, candied peels and chocolate orange. Frapin’s 1888 is a masterpiece: huge rancio backed with mysterious fruits, sandalwood, honeysuckle and freshly buffed brogues, while Leyrat’s powerful Glory Extra sits at the fungal end of the rancio spectrum. All three houses have more pocket-friendly expressions, Leyrat’s rich XO Elite, Delamain’s tobacco-accented Vesper or Frapin’s heavy-scented Château Fontpinot XO.
Though you won’t find rancio in rum, it too is good in winter—and at a keener price than single malt and Cognac. With maturation taking place twice as fast in the Caribbean as in Europe, rums can reach levels of complexity at a time when single malts and Cognacs are only getting started. As they do, they change from fresh fruits into black banana, spice, tobacco and a reduction to their molasses base—look for the punchy, phenolic spiciness of Appleton 21-year-old, or the mellow sweetness of El Dorado 15-year-old—both perfect with a cigar.
So, draw the curtains, turn the lights low and contemplate the year with a glass.