Last Friday was Robert (“Robbie”) Burns Day, a celebration of Scottish poet Robert Burns. In addition to writing some of Scotland’s most famous poetry, Burns gave name to one of the country’s storied whisky brands, Cutty Sark, through a poem about a hot witch and a drunk farmer. Founded in 1923, the brand originally made a name for itself by offering an accessibly priced blended cocktail Scotch — a far cry from the oily, peaty Scotches of the day. By the 1960s, Cutty Sark produced the best-selling Scotch whisky in the United States.
So where has it gone? In the 1980s, wine and vodka grew on American palates, as well as American whiskey brands and single malts, and Cutty’s popularity started to fade. By 2000, it was almost unheard of. But in 2010, The Edrington Group (which owns The Macallan, Famous Grouse and Highland Park, among others) bought Cutty with hopes of reviving the dying brand. The new line — which seeks to introduce a new generation of fans to Cutty’s distinctive personality and still maintains a largely uncostly price — now consists of six whiskies, three of which are available in the United States.
Q. We don’t often meet female master distillers — are there any specific advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in this industry?
A. Well some people believe that women have a better nose and palate! (though this hasn’t been scientifically proven to my knowledge and I wouldn’t like to upset my male counterparts!) I don’t regard being a female Master Blender as either an advantage or disadvantage — it’s being good at your job that counts.
At the bottom of the shelf, competing with the likes of Dewars White Label and Famous Grouse, sits the Cutty Sark Blended ($20), recognizable by the green bottle and yellow label. It contains a blend of single malts, predominantly from the Speyside region of Scotland, and grain whiskies. After aging in American Oak, the whisky is bottled at the standard 80 proof. Because of its sweetness, liveliness (it’s not the smoothest Scotch in town) and price point, the dorm-room Don Draper may be the only guy sipping it; at this price point, it’s perfect for cocktails. If you decide to take it neat, look for hay on the nose with bright citrus notes on the palate, as well as vanilla and oak. It might not be the connoisseur’s first choice, but if you’ve got $20 and a hankering for a bottle of Scotch, it’s a solid bet.
Cutty Sark’s mid-level offering, and the most recent to be released, is the Prohibition Edition ($33), which, with its cork seal, higher ABV and opaque black bottle pays tribute to Captain William McCoy, an American yacht-builder who smuggled Cutty into the U.S. during Prohibition. Made in Scotland from a blend of grain and single malt whiskies, the Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition is cold filtered, matured in American Oak casks and bottled at 100 proof (no age statement). At around $30 per bottle, it competes (price-wise) with Famous Grouse Black, though in terms of quality it better matches with Johnnie Walker Black. The whiskey pours a warm gold, with honey and caramel on the nose. Brown sugar, too — even before you take a sip, you know this whisky will be sweet. It coats the mouth, bringing with it notes of toffee and black pepper. Despite its high proof, the whisky goes down smooth, leaving behind warmth and a lingering sweetness. A bit cloying, perhaps, but a bargain buy for those who like sweeter whisky. Unlike the Blended Cutty, take this one neat or with a dash of water.
The grandaddy of the line, the Cutty Sark Tam o’Shanter ($300), comes in a limited-edition, handsome oak box with a book featuring 50 illustrations by the late Scottish painter Alexander Goudie. Like other high-end blends, this one contains a mixture of old whiskies, the youngest of which clocks in at 25 years. The whisky, which won a Gold Medal at the 2012 International Wine & Spirits Challenge, pours a dark amber. On the nose there are notes of oak, currants, and maraschino cherries. Because it’s a fine blend, one expects a certain lightness, a smoothness; however, while the blending removes the smoke and peat, the Tam o’Shanter comes at you with all the fiery wrath of a scary Scottish fairy tale: expect dark chocolate, black pepper, toffee and ginger, with a long, spicy finish that left us licking our lips. It’s an unusual Scotch, both for Cutty and the industry — more like a single malt than a blend. For the price, traditionalists might prefer something smoother, but collectors or those with a wild side will appreciate Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell’s play.
With the decreasing popularity of Scotch in favor of Irish whiskies, Japanese whiskies and PBR, it’s nice to see a come-back brand try and reach a wider audience by producing a good range of whiskies at varying price points. In terms of what’s next for Cutty, Global Brand Controller Jason Craig gave an answer as mysterious as a dram of Tam o’Shanter: “We don’t want to be simply defined as a whisky company. Our new product releases and marketing plans are being steered to deliver in that fashion, so watch this space for updates.” In other words, interesting things are coming. Keep your eyes open.