In recent times, older blended whiskies from the 1960s – 1980s have been attracting increased attention because they can be compared and contrasted with their modern day equivalents. Some have said that the vintage bottles deliver better flavour and texture. Instead of focusing on the bottom line, older blenders apparently were more focused on making a good product and building a good reputation. And in fairness, before the modern global logistics network was available, demand for Scotch was so much lower, leaving blenders with access to stocks of older and more varied single malts available for blending.
This bottle of blended Scotch we are reviewing today is the first of the many old and vintage malts we would be delving into, to understand how whiskies tasted back in the “good old days”. The bottle today is also a slice of Scottish and Italian history from the 1960s-1970s. How so? Let me explain.
A cup of grappa, a shot of Campari, a splash of Limoncello and a glass of wine. The casual observer would mainly associate Italy with these alcohols. Yet around the 1960s to 1970s, Italy grew to become the world’s biggest importer of single malt Scotch.
The Italians’ quiet love affair with the Scottish aquavitae is a bit of an untold story outside of Italy, largely unknown except to ardent bottle collectors who chase down specific bottles of vintage whisky.
The story began early in the early 1900s when Italians began consuming luxury goods in greater quantities. Luxury goods distributor Wax & Vitale SpA began bringing several brands of Scotch into Italy, including Johnnie Walker’s for which it was appointed as agent.
A Johnnie Walker showcase hosted by Wax & Vitale in Italy, circa. 1906 (Image Source: Diageo Archive)
After the interruption of a Fascist dictator, two World Wars and a Great Depression, whisky made a comeback in Italy. In 1959, a successful businessman and whisky collector, Edoardo Giaconne, opened a whisky shop in the town of Salò in northern Italy, known as Whiskyteca Garten Salo. Giaconne’s bar proved to be so successful that it his whisky empire expanded to at least 6 more establishments, including a bar called Edwards & Edwards.
Edoardo Giaconne, a mustachioed Italian businessman, ran a chain of highly successful and famous Scotch whisky bars in Italy between 1950s to 1980s. The man was also entered into the Guinness Book of Records for the largest collection of whisky.
Scotch started becoming a glamorised product in Italian popular culture of the time, and sales began to really take off during Italy’s resurgent post-war economy. Italian independent bottlers of whisky also began springing up, the most famous and influential being Silvano Samaroli. By the 1970s, an Italian whisky drinker has become a discerning aficionado who appreciates single malts and cask-strength Scotch.
The whisky we have today was distilled roughly around 1965, before being bottled by Gordon & MacPhail in 1973 as an 8-year-old Scotch. The brand “Glen Urquhart” is intended to honour the name of the founding family of the Gordon & MacPhail company- the Urquhart family. Gordon & MacPhail continues to be run by the Urquharts today.
The slice of Italian history can be gleaned from a closer look at the bottle label. The old labelling describes this as “acquavite di cereal” or “spirit made from cereal”. The back label indicates that this bottle was specially imported into Italy around the 1970s for Edwards & Edwards Salo, one of the renowned bars owned by Edoardo Giaconne.
With that bit of history aside, let’s raise a toast to the late Edoardo Giaconne and dive right in to tasting this beast.
In the glass, the liquid is a deep amber colour with relatively slow legs.
On the nose, smooth, mild and harmonious. A moderately thick aroma of ripe red fruits with strawberries, raspberries and cherries. No dryness at all. From the amount of sweetness and fruitiness I’m guessing that there is quite a bit of Pedro Ximinez (PX) cask matured whisky in this blend. Over time, I start to pick up a very subtle maritime smokiness that forms a duet with the sweet sherried notes (could this contain some Lagavulin?).
On the palate, a nice slightly-oily texture while the flavours are defined by lots of sweet honey and caramel forward notes, developing to more strawberry jam and a saccharine maraschino cherry-type taste. This is accompanied by very subdued heat and a herbaceous note.
Substantial notes of sweet, sticky strawberry jam (Image Source: Sweet Cayenne)
Mild saccharine notes of maraschino cherries.
Dark, earthy notes arise 2 to 3 seconds in, without taking over the palate: a light sponge chocolate cake, black coffee, some Oolong tea leaves, developing to a very faint aromatic tobacco smoke note. Makes me feel like I’m eating a chocolate knick knack in an upscale dessert bar.
Chocolate Christmas spiced jelly at 2am Dessert Bar.
The finish is rather short with fading cinnamon spiced coffee and very faint tobacco smoke.
Sir Winston Churchill loved Johnnie Walker blended Scotch and always drank a glass first thing in the morning. Recently, Churchill’s painting of his favourite brand of whisky went on auction at Sotheby’s (Image Source: Sotheby’s)
In my personal experience, commercially mass-produced blended whiskies (think modern-day editions of Johnnie Walker or Chivas’ that you can find readily available in supermarkets) sometimes have a rather non-committal flavour profile and occasionally a rough texture with stinging alcohol bite. Yes, Churchill loved the Johnnie Walker blend very much, but he might have been drinking a different recipe than the ones produced today.
This 8-year-old Glen Urquhart has a lovely smooth texture, sweet and well-rounded flavour profile and a touch of smoke to keep things interesting. While I’m not a big fan of the bit of saccharine artificial cherry-like flavour, all the components of this whisky are well-integrated and harmonious. If modern-day blended whisky all tasted this pleasant, I would be stocking racks of this stuff at home!
A dram worth risking your neck on a Vespa for! (Film: Luca (Walt Disney Studios, 2021))
This is harmonious, well-rounded and plays all the right notes. It also gives modern day single malts a run for their money. This makes me want to ride a Vespa scooter down the seaside town of Porto Rosso for a dram of blended Scotch and a rich bowl of gelato.