September Scotch: What Old-Rare Means to Usquaebach

The second installment in our month-long exploration of Scotland's whisky wonders

Before we even touch upon what Usquaebach is, we must address its rather tricky-to-pronounce name—which should be read as “OOS-KE-BAH.” Stepping back to the 1500s, the Gaelic words “uisge beatha” translated to “water of life,” which meant whisky. Poet Robert Burns declared what would become a new canonical spelling as usquaebach in 1791. So, usquaebach means whisky. It’s that simple, and appropriately so because that’s exactly what the brand embodies: blended Highland whisky.

With origins dating back to the 1800s, it’s a rather old brand. But, for the last three generations, it’s been blended by the Laing family—and is presently overseen by Master Blender Stewart Laing. Usquaebach does not have a base distillery. Its individual single malt components have been drawn from many, many Highland distilleries. Its success and alluring flavor profile—floral, mellow but nuanced, akin to what we noted in our previous September Scotch about what typically defines Highland scotch—is based solely on Laing’s ability to bring together exactly what he’s seeking and produce something delectable.

“My years with Usquaebach go back to 1972 when the brand was bought from the Grigor family and we only had the one blend: the Old-Rare,” Laing explains. The Old-Rare remains the brand’s most iconic expression. Half of that pertains to the strength of the spirit—drawn from 41 hand-selected single malts with ages up to 20 years old. As Laing puts it, “Certain blends that make their way into the Usquaebach bottlings are only available to us because of our personal relationships with others in the whisky business, and the ‘Old-Rare’ Blend actually uses more malt in its blend than most premium blended whiskies produced anywhere in the world. Its availability is limited by the rarity and expense of the whiskies used.” The other half of its acclaim stems from the flagon in which it is bottled. The ceramic throws back to alternate forms of bottling in the history of whisky. It wouldn’t matter if the scotch weren’t so tasty, though. And with fresh fruit and honey on the tongue, a thicker mouthfeel, and a long finish of spice this is certifiably well-crafted.

The second of three expressions in their portfolio, the Usquaebach Reserve represents their entry-level option. From the technical side, that means to them that 50% of the blend is quality single malt and the other is fine grain whisky. In this instance, that translates to a nose of honey, sherry and maybe even a bit of citrus, but the flavors conveyed include vanilla and sweeter spices, with a peppery finish. This is a lighter expression than the Old-Rare—a benefit of this being it mixes well in cocktails.

The final piece of the Usquaebach collection happens to be the 15-Year Blended Malt. As the name makes clear, all of the single malts (and there are only malts) within have been aged for at least 15 years. Sherry factors heavily into the blend, so the aroma and palate carries more spice than the Reserve. The nose is of dried fruits, easily detectable. Each sip carries vanilla nuttiness and the sherry spice—like a cinnamon and cardamon fruit cake. There’s weight to each sip and it lingers for a long finish.

Usquaebach, the brand, has changed hands many times in its centuries long history. It’s also been in and out of availability in the US—where it is presently starting to thrive again. Tasting any of the three expressions makes clear that it’s in good hands with Laing. It’s a worthy series of blends—and blends were initially created to perfect scotch before distribution (though we all know single malts strike the most prestige these days). From a design perspective, however, there’s really nothing else in the whisky market quite like the Old-Rare’s flagon. The concept is rare. The whisky is old (for whisky) and that’s what Usquaebach is going for.

Images courtesy of Usquaebach