The Tasting Panel magazine

December 2016

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Page 97 of 124

december 2016  /  the tasting panel  /  97 F or centuries, the people of Scotland referred to whisky as uisge beatha, an ancient phrase that translates to "the water of life." Usquaebach is a Gaelic spirit whose name stems from that bygone colloquial idiom and is the only whisky granted permission to call itself the common name due to the blend's popularity, quality and pedigree. It was later trademarked in 1877, and today Highlands producer Usquaebach proudly carries on this honor with great pride. Stewart Laing has been in charge of crafting Usquaebach's unique blend for decades, and no man is more suited for the job. "I started working in the Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay in 1966—this distillery, owned by my uncle, gave me my initial experience of distilling," he recalls. After working for his father's company, Douglas Laing & Co., for 45 years, Stewart used his passion and expertise to found his own business, Hunter Laing. The opportunity to blend a whisky with such pedigree isn't lost on Laing: "Usquaebach has a long tradition that predates any involvement with Hunter Laing. It has built a reputation amongst connoisseurs. It is a privilege to blend and bottle Usquaebach." In a world that values exclusivity, Usquaebach sets itself apart through its strong tie to its truly remarkable past. "History is what truly defines Usquaebach as a brand, and I believe Hunter Laing does a tremendous job crafting our whisky the way blends from a bygone era used to be produced—carefully and with an eye for character," says Ryan Judson, Brand Ambassador. He continues, "The whiskies Stewart chooses for Usquaebach are malt casks that he has curated personally over many years, which I think is a testament to the authenticity of the brand. Many of our competitor brands in the blended cat- egory are simply commodities. With Usquaebach, our goal is to focus on the integrity of the malts and grains in order to produce a blend that is not just enjoyable, but memorable." Usquaebach's porcelain bottle is as historic as the blend that inhabits it. Called "flagons," these clay pots were the original receptacles from which the "water of life" was served. Keeping that tradition alive, Usquaebach bottles its Old-Rare blend in individually numbered flagons that also denote the year of its release. Blended from 41 single malts aging up to 20 years, Old-Rare is an opulent and complex Highland whisky. With notes of citrus zest and pepper on the nose, an intense herbaceousness and fresh leather palate give way to a finish of toffee and sherry nuttiness. This year, Usquaebach introduced its first new offering in 22 years, the cask strength An Ard Ri, or "The High King" in Gaelic. "In my experience of marketing and selling whisky, I am constantly approached by whisky drinkers who crave ever more strength in their drams," says Judson. Laing explains the process of creating such a long-awaited endeavor: "On the outset, we received a conceptual taste and flavor profile from Sean Perry, owner of Cobalt Brands, who gave us a blank page to work with, but with instructions as to what is required at the end of the day. Our Master Blender, Tom Aitken, is the ultimate arbiter of the blend. It took us over three months of hard work and analysis (and drinking) to obtain what we believe was the desired result." The desired result, as described by Judson, seems to fall in line perfectly with what one would expect from Usquaebach: "Hunter Laing expertly crafted what I believe to be one of the softest and most approachable cask-strength blends I've ever sampled—its refinement does not skip a beat with the tradition of Usquaebach's exemplary blends." With the whisky category firing on all cylinders, smaller brands often go crazy trying to find their place in this world. Not so with Usquaebach. "We never set out to 'make' a whisky brand. Our intent upon acquiring the rights to Usquaebach was to resurrect a historic whisky and incredi- ble blend," explains Perry. "Even today, I don't think our goal is to compete with the big brands in the blended category. For the most part, a lot of what they produce is commod- ity whisky. Our mission, on the other hand, is to craft Usquaebach in a way that hearkens back to the high-malt content, rich and enveloping blends featured in the past— when blending was an art form." Judson agrees, saying, "The brand is a unique, small-production treasure that has survived many years, yet has helped to define what modern day whisky culture expects—authenticity and history." PHOTO COURTESY OF HUNTER LAING PHOTO COURTESY OF HUNTER LAING The men of Hunter Laing & Co., Ltd., the blenders and bottlers of Usquaebach. Left to right: Andrew Laing, Export Director; Stewart Laing, Managing Director; and Scott Laing, Business Development Director.

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