When you glance inside the prized liquor cabinets of “serious” collectors of scotch whisky and rum in particular, you might be surprised to see relatively few recognizable labels from beloved scotch and rum distilleries. Unlike say, the world of bourbon, this is because the most sought-after bottles in the scotch and rum world very often come not directly from the distilleries themselves, but from independent bottlers who seek out choice barrels from those distillers. Although this concept certainly exists in the American whiskey world, via high-profile bottlers such as Kentucky Owl or Old Carter, it’s perhaps more noticeable when looking at scotch and rum because these bottles tend to offer an experience that in many cases can’t be had any other way. Whereas many scotch whisky and rum distilleries don’t offer any of their well-aged brands at cask strength, for instance, almost all independent bottlers focus on cask-strength whisky and rum. For the most intent collectors, then, these types of bottles are often touted as the purest expression of a distillery’s house style.
ImpEx Beverages is a new entrant into this field, a U.S. distributor that primarily focuses on small-to-medium sized distilleries around the world. The distilleries they distribute in the U.S. include the likes of Kilchoman, Penderyn, Glenallachie, Fukano, and M&H, but the newly launched “ImpEx Collection” will include single barrels/casks from many others. Each is a unique barrel of scotch whisky, world whiskey, rum or otherwise aged spirit, presented at cask strength, which means it all comes down to one question: What kind of barrels did they pick?
Curious to sample these new wares, I received samples of two very different entries in the ImpEx Collection—a 28-year-old single grain scotch matured entirely in a sherry butt, and a 15-year-old Jamaican rum.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting each of these unique drams.
This is full name ImpEx Collection 28 yo Cameronbridge Cask #115125, aged in a 1982 sherry butt. Cameronbridge is the largest and oldest grain distillery in Europe, located on the northern end of the Scottish Lowlands. Cameronbridge only produces grain whisky, so considering this is from a single distillery, it is classified as single grain whisky, although it’s not known exactly what grain is used for distillation. Regardless, this is not a malt whisky.
Suffice to say, this is a first for me in a few different ways. Well-aged single grain whisky is already not terribly common, although you do see more of it these days—but the vast majority of everything produced by Cameronbridge is ending up in big commercial blended scotch whiskies. What’s really unusual is taking this single grain whisky, though, and then aging it in sherry butts for such a long period. This is the first time I’ve tasted this kind of unusual combination of age and sherry maturation in a single grain whisky. MSRP on this bottle is $200, and it has an unusually high strength of 51.8% ABV (103.6 proof), indicating it lost less proof than one would likely expect during those 28 years of aging.
On the nose, this 28-year-old Cameronbridge is initially not at all what I was expecting—I’m getting tons of vanilla and some ethanol, into white chocolate, fudge and floral green apples. Not present is the darker fruit and nuttiness I was expecting out of the sherry casks, nor the at least moderate oak presence you’d expect after 28 years of aging. However, these first impressions can be deceptive. After sitting in the glass for a few minutes, the ethanol blows off some, and I begin getting more dried fruit notes, and hints of antique leather, more in line with the aged/oxidized tones I was expecting out of the sherry cask. The nose also gets sweeter over time, which hints at what would be revealed as a very confectionery-type palate.
On the palate, this proves to be a dessert-like dram, with lots of sweet cinnamon, cocoa and maple, into butter toffee and considerable baking spices. It’s a bit thin in terms of texture for the age and proof, but one must keep in mind that this is grain rather than malt whisky. The baking spices are a big signature here, with a panoply of spice notes that evoke French oak, combined with spice cake. Sweetness is substantial, but notably it does lead to a somewhat drier finish … not because it feels like it’s being dried out by oak, but because those spice notes seem to have their own tannic effect, as you might get out of a potent spice tincture. With time in the glass, it gets much easier to interpret as dark fruity sherry—not via the nuttiness, but via more of an oxidized, syrupy fruitiness. Throughout, you’re feeling the full force of the 103.6 proof in the chest in particular.
This 28-year-old Cameronbridge was certainly unique, and my confusion in tasting it can be chalked up to both the unusual nature of the dram, and my relative inexperience with highly aged, sherried grain whiskies. Regardless, this is the sort of unique experience one is paying for when splurging on a bottle from an independent bottler charging $200 or more for the experience.
Full title is ImpEx Collection 15 yo Long Pond Cask #21VRW, which was aged in an oak barrel since 2005. This rum was distilled from molasses in the copper pot stills of Long Pond, the sugar estate and distillery of the Jamaican Parish of Trelawny. Long Pond is not as well known to the more casual rum geeks as the likes of Appleton, Hampden and Worthy Park, and much of the rum it produces ends up in European blends, but it has its fans among private collectors. The “VRW” in the full name stands for “Vale Royal Wedderburn,” a specific Long Pond mark that implies a moderate level of esters, roughly 150-250 g/hlaa (grams per hectoliter). To a rum geek, this implies a moderate but not extreme level of Jamaican rum “funkiness.” Bottles retail for an MSRP of $129, at a cask strength of 52.2% ABV (104.4 proof).
On the nose, this one immediately smells quite inviting and decadent. I’m getting freshly baked molasses cookies, laced with Christmas spices and combined with lots of ripe tropical fruit and orange citrus candy. It evokes an almost fruity, spiced cake—carrot cake?—with deeply caramelized sugars, slices of caramelized banana and subtle chocolate over time. Oak is quite subtle, and the funk mostly presents as overripe fruit notes. All in all, very inviting, even to drinkers not terribly familiar with well-aged, cask-strength Jamaican rum.
On the palate, this is big, very bold stuff, with crowd-pleasing flavors that are certainly not lacking in assertiveness at any point. Again I get those caramelized bananas, along with toasted coconut, dark chocolate and tons of spice. The ethanol heat is certainly there as well—this is burly, quite sweet, and very rich. Teasing further, there’s a bit more chemical profile as well, with slight notes of glue, but I’m mostly just taken by the delicious panoply of sweet spices. All in all, this is extremely tasty. If I ran across this in a store, I’d be pretty tempted to plunk down that $129 asking price.
I’ll be very curious to see what rum barrels in particular ImpEx happens to highlight in the future.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.