Strange Brew

Tasting Notes: The Glenlivet Alpha

Culture By Photo by Eric Yang

The gimmick is a marketing force in the 21st century. To be fair, it was a marketing force in the 20th century too, and probably the 19th. Face it: the “cold activation bars” (or “air vents”) on your Rocky-Mountain-brewed Coors are on about the same level as the KFC Double-Down, craft beers brewed with beard yeast, or the confidence schemes the Duke and the King so skillfully practiced along the Mississippi with Huck and Jim. Those two bastards were tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail; Coors, not so much. Such is the world we live in.

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If we sound bitter about these contrivances, don’t write us off as full time haters just yet. The Glenlivet Alpha (~$150), a mysterious Scotch whisky with a decidedly strange and scheme-filled marketing campaign, hits our soft spot for curiosity and adventure. Mind you, we also have a particularly large soft spot for excellent Scotch. It nails us there, too.

The trick is this: The Glenlivet Alpha is a limited release (3,500 bottles worldwide), sold in a black bottle labeled plainly “from The Glenlivet Distillery” with a glossy alpha symbol against a matte background. The bottle also informs that it’s a 750mL bottle (duh) and that the Scotch is 50% alcohol. That’s about all the potential buyer gets; this is the first Glenlivet released without tasting notes, aging distinction or cask details. None, for a bottle that costs a Benjamin and a half. The Glenlivet created a special section on their site along with a Facebook app after its release, featuring “challenges” in sight, smell, taste and feel that gave away “clues” to the whisky’s creation secrets. (Their Master Distiller, Alan Winchester, recently gave tasting notes in a special video, but we couldn’t watch that until after our own tasting, of course.) Intriguing? Yes, though it did, as we mentioned, set off our gimmickry alarms.

Then we drank it. It’s gold and straw-colored in the glass, and sugary sweet on the nose, with plenty of honey, vanilla and just a bit of caramel. On the tongue there’s a bright hit of sugar and even fruitiness followed by a wave of char, spice and toffee. The finish is relatively dry, with some smoke, and very spicy. This is a serious whisky, for sure — no strange packaging can conceal that.

Then we decided to get the skinny. In his tasting video, Winchester divulges that Alpha was aged not in bourbon- or sherry-conditioned barrels, but rather new oak barrels previously containing only Scotch. In his words, this provides a “sweet intensity of flavor”, a nose of oranges, pear and toffee, and a taste “bursting with fruit”. We’ll be the first to admit that we didn’t quite (or at all) get to that level of flavor or smell distinction. But we get it. And really, we’re not upset — the most refreshing thing about this gimmick was that it let the drinker decide what he tasted rather than being told by the brand. Plus, the important thing is that it’s delicious, no?