When I was hiking the West Highland Way two years ago I was struck by how empty the landscape was. In fact, the Scottish Highlands have the second lowest population density in Europe after Lapland. But we would often come upon evidence that this was not always the case. The ruins of cottages and other structures were everywhere. Before the late 18th century the Highlands were much more densely populated but then the "Clearances" began wherein the Highlanders who had lived and farmed there for centuries upon centuries, but who had no officially recognized title to the land, were forced off to make way for the more profitable sheep. This process continued in waves over a roughly sixty year period until 1820. The end result was the decimation of the Highland way of life and mass emigration. With respect to the latter, one Scottish nobleman, Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, was taken by the plight of Highlanders and established colonies in Canada to help them prosper in the New World. The most well known of these colonies was right here, along the Red River, and it was a key event in the eventual founding of Winnipeg.
But, this is not a history blog, it is a whisky blog. Sure the Selkirk Scots brought a taste for whisky here, so there is that connection, but the real, and admittedly far lamer reason, for calling our most recent Cabinet Meeting "The Highland Clearances" was the need to clear Highland whiskies from our stocks. The actual physical cabinet is full to bursting, literally to bursting as the doors bulge out and can only be closed with force and cunning. Moreover, as a group we generally prefer coastal and island malts, so the inland Highland and Speyside whiskies sit there, unloved and unasked for.
The first to clear out was the Glen Garioch Founder's Reserve. You will recall (or not) that by the entirely obscure, but charming, rules of Gaelic it is actually pronounced "glen geery". It is fine, not fabulous by any means, but fine. We neither hate it nor love it. The higher alcohol level (48%) gives it a distracting burn, but behind that there is a nicely balanced malt with perhaps some fruit notes, such as apple or pear. There is a finish, but minimal. Again, fine, just fine.
Next up was the Balblair '03. One word describes this whisky: simple. We reviewed it in 2015 and gave it a "One Dram - Mediocre" score, although right on the cusp of "Two Drams - Fair" in our zero to four drams rating scale. Initially that score still seemed about right as that simplicity gave us little to ponder and little to talk about. But on further consideration we came around to seeing the simplicity as something closer to elegance, the way a classically tailored suit is simple, but also elegant and perfectly appropriate, or even desirable, for some occasions. This would be an excellent introductory whisky for someone wanting to try scotch neat for the first time.
This was followed by an interesting counterpoint, The Deveron 12 year old. Let's start with the "The" - often a mark of pretension, often a warning sign, although "The Macallan" does come by it honestly. Then there's the fact that there the "Deveron Distillery Co" on the label is misleading. This is marketing sleight of hand. There is no such distillery, this whisky comes from the MacDuff Distillery, which primarily produces scotch used for blending in Dewars. All of that would be absolutely fine if the whisky was good, but it's not, it's actually somewhat appalling. I can best describe the sensation of drinking it as taking in a small a mound of sweet malt surrounded by a thin ring of fire. That's it - just sweet malt and some alcohol. Minimal nose and essentially no finish. Like the Balblair it is simple, but unlike it it is in no way elegant. An ill-fitting black velour suit next to a finely tailored wool one. Laughably, it rates 4 1/2 stars (out of 5) based on 18 reviews on one of the most prominent whisky ratings site. So evidently some of you may disagree with us. Go ahead, knock yourselves out.
We finished with the Glendronnach Parliament 21 year old. This was a perfect way to end the evening as it is essentially a dessert scotch. Dark and heavy and packed with intense fruit like dried cherries it felt like it should have been saved for Christmas. A bit of roughness and a poor finish marred it though, so again, not one we love, but we certainly don't hate it either. It was previously rated at "Two Drams - Fair", which seems about right.
It was a wonderfully raucous meeting, full of tales of the Golden Age of ______ (ask someone who was there to fill in the blank), virtual reality, underwater sculptures, landspouts and, of course, the Cowboy Mansion. Oh, and an official invitation on Cabinet letterhead was issued to Bob Dylan to come and personally introduce us to his Heaven's Gate bourbons.
All of this and Grant's fabulous Lahproaig oatmeal cookies...