The Exceptional: Small-Batch Scotch Whiskies

Three distinct blended expressions, produced by some of the most acclaimed brands

It’s a bold move to name your brand “exceptional.” The first definition tends to mean not typical; the second, outstanding. When creating The Exceptional, Donald Sutcliffe touches upon both. It’s rather unusual to make small-batch blended Scotch with the intention of having variation per batch, as blending has long been used to keep a product adhering specifically to a house style. Sutcliffe, who’s the Managing Director of Craft Distillers by day, lives in California, but The Exceptional is a product of Scotland—where Sutcliffe has been deeply ingrained professionally for 27 years. It’s Sutcliffe’s tenure in the alcohol industry, his love of Scotland, and a partner with the type of access only Scotch aficionados can dream of, that come together within the relatively new brand’s three expressions. And the result has been extraordinary—tasty, complex and smooth.

Sutcliffe fell in love with Scotch and Scotland back in September 1987, on his first visit to The Macallan—then a small independent distillery. It was there that he met his future partner for The Exceptional, The Macallan‘s managing director for 23 years: Willie Phillips. “It changed every element of my life,” Sutcliffe explains to CH. “I knew that some way or other, for the rest of my life, I would be going to do business in Scotland, hopefully with whisky.” Phillips and Sutcliffe remained close.

While at Craft Distillers, Sutcliffe witnessed the creation and then sale of Hangar 1 vodka. Years later, Phillips called Sutcliffe with the proposition to run the American business for a scotch distillery he and a group were buying. The deal fell through as the whisky business skyrocketed in the midst of acquisition, but Sutcliffe and Phillips decide to develop a different project. “What if we make blended whiskies to be complex, rich and layered and focus on each of the whiskies as much as the blend?” Sutcliffe proposed. “This project became the next step in blended Scotch whisky,” he adds. A single malt mentality for a blended grain whisky, these are limited production whiskies and the profile from one bottling to the next varies based on what they source. Each expression, and iteration, is a new adventure.

At the beginning, “Everyone was terrifically polite and willing to work with us—because it was Willie’s project—but it’s fair to say that nobody thought it was particularly intelligent or that it would be successful.” With Phillips’ access, doors opened to some of the best distilleries. “Distilleries produce a lot of new-make whisky for blenders—all of them. They sell it immediately to blenders who store, age and blend on their own,” Sutcliffe adds before mentioning, “None of us are really blenders.” That said, all of the expressions are Sutcliffe’s recipes. “We got the whiskies, went through them, figured out what we wanted, and that’s when we determined what else we needed.”

With his three pillars—complex, rich and layered—and a general taste for oak over smoke, The Exceptional began to blend, marry and finish their whiskies. “To make complexity, you have new make spirit, wood and age. You’re still within a framework. But by using different distilleries’ spirit you broaden the palate. By using young, medium and old whiskies, you extend the range of the palate.” His debut result was better than good. People responded positively. As he explains it, “I was sitting in Edinburgh with my mentor and partner just after went to market, and there was a bottle of my whisky on the back bar at our favorite restaurant. I said, ‘If i don’t sell another bottle aside from that one, I’ll be OK.'” But Sutcliffe has, and more expressions came to light. We had Sutcliffe walk us through all three and give us a bit of personal information on each.

The Exceptional Grain

The first iteration of The Exceptional Grain (43% ABV) debuted in 2013. Inside one finds a six-year-old wheat whisky from Loch Lomond, a 12-year-old corn whisky from North British and a wheat whisky from Carsebridge whisky, aged 32 years. The latter’s distillery has been closed for 25 years. Sutcliffe put the blend in first-fill sherry casks for six months. “We didn’t need it for aging purposes. It was for marrying and getting that sherry character, sweet in the front and dry in the back.” The blend was composed to appease Sutcliffe and his tasting committee’s palate. “I like softness and nuance. I don’t particularly care for peat or overpowering flavors. I like the alcohol to be structural, not primary.” This inaugural release was highly acclaimed and tasted of honeyed-wheat and red fruits. Sutcliffe has since produced a second iteration, and while different, it also captivated many palates.

The Exceptional Malt

The inaugural blend of The Exceptional Malt (43% ABV), released in 2015, featured eight single malts—many of which were Highland and Speyside. His second edition was a blend of 11. There’s 30-year-old Macallan inside of it, and Westport (home of Glenmorangie), as well. “This I would describe as more robust and flavorful, and even more complex. It’s simpler to do this than the grain. You have very different flavors. What you’re selecting whiskies, you’re not necessarily looking for eleven great stand alone ones. It’s eleven that have desirable, interesting characteristics. Otherwise, you’ll end up with something primary.” It’s sherry married.

Surprisingly, there’s a bit of peat here. “At no point did any of the whiskies show any sign of peat initially,” Sutcliffe explains. “Four months into the marrying, a peat character developed—before subsiding to something noticeable but not as strong. “I went back and researched each of the casks we used. I figured out that Ben Nevis lightly peats their malt. Very lightly. So does Glenlochy. As individual casks it didn’t show at all, but now, as it ends up, I’ve got four lightly peated casks and it became a more significant part of the overall blend.” Sutcliffe was upset at the time but not only did it grow on him, but most consumers responded favorably.

The Exceptional Blend

In June of this year, Sutcliffe debuted The Exceptional Blend. “This is essentially 60% The Exceptional Grain, though the third generation—and 40% of The Exceptional Malt’s second generation. Although,” he says, “there is variance.” They adjusted the blend to illicit a more specific profile, back in May 2015. It was also married for six or so months, and the result is the richest of the three. “I think it’s probably the best one we have done so far, even though they’re all so stylistically different,” he explains. “You wouldn’t think that either of the other two were major components. It has more sweetness and lifts right at the front of the palate.” Sutcliffe’s desire was not to simply make another whisky similar to everyone else’s, or even his own. Instead, he’s evolved a category and put out a series of worthy products that add value to the industry, rather than adding to the noise.

Images by Cool Hunting