“The general is a former war hero and ex-chief of staff; whereas, I’m a magnificent tipper. Please see the suite is made up. I’ll have a bucket of ice and three bottles of Canadian Club.” – Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire
This is just one of many of my favourite lines of late on the series Boardwalk Empire. You see, while most people got into this show a couple of years back, I’m the type that waits until things come out on DVD boxsets so I can splurge on episodes to my heart’s content. Last year, it was The Wire. This year, it’s Boardwalk (and Breaking Bad, but that’s not as relevant to this post).
If you’ve not heard of it, Boardwalk Empire is a critically acclaimed HBO series set in Atlantic City during Prohibition. Steve Buscemi plays the kingpin, Nucky Thompson, whose lines are witty and cutting. I love it.
So what, pray tell, does this have to do with whisky?
Well, the other day I received a sample of the new Cutty Sark Prohibition – a whisky made in honour of the 90th anniversary of the company’s existence and the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition. It has been bottled at the super ABV of 50% to reflect the strength of the bootlegged whisky that Cutty Sark was importing illegally into the US in the 1920s. Yes, that’s right – Cutty Sark helped to get its foothold in the US during the time booze was illegal, a fact made ever more interesting when you realise the brand was created by the royalty-loving and upstanding Berry Bros & Rudd.
The history of the blend brand is fascinating as I also recently discovered while reading the book on Cutty Sark, written by a host of whisky scribes back in 2011.
Established in 1923, Cutty Sark was created to put a whisky blend in the market which was light and fresh, that wouldn’t affect people’s palates (like the peaty whiskies of the day) before they drank wine with their dinner. At the time, one of the co-managers of the shop – Francis Berry – had great tie-ins with the US (having traveled there frequently since the early 20th century) so the in-roads were laid to the overseas market and the plan was to create a blend that would become popular post-Prohibition.
The brand took its name from two places: partly from the Robert Burns poem Tam O’Shanter, in which the term ‘cutty sark’ is referred to (in this case, meaning the petticoat worn by sultry witch Nannie) and partly because the famous tea clipper – The Cutty Sark – which was in the news frequently in 1923 as it was being returned to England after having been owned by the Portuguese.
The blend was made up from a mix of well-known names, such as Glenrothes, Highland Park, The Macallan, Tamdhu, Bunnahabhain and Glengoyne, giving it a real balance between light and delicate notes, with teeny hints of smoke and sherry.
However, the company – it seemed – did not want to wait until the end of the long-running Prohibition to gets its stocks into the US market. Instead, tales abound that the company managed to get in with the wily character and legendary bootlegger Captain Bill McCoy to help get its product into the speakeasies that dotted the east coast of the US. This decision to get into the market before the end of Prohibition is what allowed the brand to become so successful after 1933 when booze could be freely taken once more.
And so, while watching a recent episode of Boardwalk, I decided to indulge myself in a bit of this new blend since my mood was all about the 1920s. What did I think of it?
To start, the nose had a slightly sharp bite, no doubt from the high ABV. Underneath for me though, there was a lovely wafting of bananas, soft black licorice, malty wheat, toffee, figs and a hint of rubbing alcohol. On the palate, it was deliciously fruity, with flavours of dried apricots, honey and oranges. It was sweeter than I imagined, with an almost saccharine note that combined with butterscotch and soft black licorice. There was at first a richness to the finish – slightly sherried and plummy – that dissipated into a floral but smoky after effect that reminded me of a combination of summer pea shoots and the drifting smoke from a campfire.
This is a blend that you do not have to blend with anything, as it were. I would happily sip this on its own and plan to continue doing so as I indulge in more Prohibition-era goodness with Nucky and the gang. I recommend you miss out on neither.