Design house XM Studios now bottles Whisky & Spirits – We Got a Taste
Time is a flat circle, and we've returned to the Twenties again. It may not seem that way but I'd argue that our decade is no less riotous or ludicrous than the Jazz Age: what with allegedly self-aware AI chatbots, people becoming millionaires overnight (in wealth or debt) trading digital apes, and more recently discussions by serious experts about dealing with extraterrestrial visitors.
There's not a better time than now to explore a throwback to the Roaring Twenties.
Last week, leading design studio XM ("XM Studios") announced its first foray into the luxury spirits market. In partnership with Warner Bros. (rights owner of the Great Gatsby Motion Picture) and independent bottler Malt Sainte, XM Studios launched its first range of limited edition single cask spirits: The Great Gatsby Single Cask Spirits Collection.
I got a taste of the spirits collection at their launch event this Thursday.
Rare spirits from 3 casks were bottled: a 30-Year-Old Bunnahabhain Single Malt, a 24-Year-Old Glen Grant Single Malt, and a Vallein Tercinier Petit Champagne. This lineup draws inspiration from the libation and art of the Roaring Twenties.
The Cognac and Scotches were selected by Timothy Ng of Malt Sainte, who specifically sought taste profiles that hark back to the old decades, when balance and harmony were much more important than overly bold flavours. You won't be seeing any peat monsters or sherry bombs here.
What's immediately obvious are the standout design elements of the bottles and packaging designed in-house by XM Studios. The team drew inspiration from the Jazz Age, gold and chrome colours, and rectilinear geometric motifs of the Art Deco movement. Each of the three bottles come in a different design and were designed to highlight elements of the spirit within.
"Interesting how different they look in size when they all hold the same volume [of 700ml]," my plus-one had remarked.
As with all tasting sessions, we were instructed to sample the spirits from the lightest-tasting one (starting with the VT Petit Champagne ending with the 30 YO Bunnahabhain).
Vallein Tercinier Petit Champagne 1994 Single Cask
It's not often we get to see single distillery Cognac on the table. While single distillery whiskies (single malts or single grains) and rums ("single estate" or just "single") have really caught on in the premium category with international consumers, for some time, most of us outside France are still more familiar with the Big Four Cognac Houses (Remy Martin, Martell, Courvoisier and Hennessy) who source their spirit from an array of distilleries. But as whiskies take over the world, other fine spirits are increasingly making their way to the glasses of spirits enthusiasts.
Just as how Scotch single malts are often categorised by regions (Highlands, Islay, etc), the the Cognac region of France (which produces Cognac brandy) has 6 different growth areas (or "Cru"): Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires.
Vallein Tercinier is established by Georges Vallein in 1850 in the Cognac region of France, and began selling its brandy to the major Houses since then. The bottle here is distilled from the product of vines located in the Petite Champagne Cru, which is known to result in very fine and floral spirit suited for long ageing.
Like many other Cognacs, this has been matured in presumably a French oak cask for an undisclosed period of time.
Colour: White wine.
Nose: Opens with very mild but distinct white pomelo-forward notes before developing gradually to honey and peach jelly. Very approachable and friendly on the nose without so much of an alcoholic prick. Swirling this for several minutes reveals some poached pears and mildly tart baked green apples.
Palate: The first sip greets you with more prominent - but still rather gentle - notes of grapefruit, honey, and iced Qoo White Grape Flavoured drink. Sweetness is very subdued. While the flavours are light and gentle, there is a mild thickness to the texture, a pleasant oiliness that coats the tongue with flavour for a second or two.
After several minutes, the palate tones down in acidity while a sliver of oakiness begins to show - just a smidge. Instead of heat, I get a bright spearmint sensation towards the back of my tongue.
The finish brings up more tannins and mild bitterness, reminiscent of grapefruit rinds and white tea.
The balanced sweetness is something many Scotch or Japanese whisky drinkers might appreciate. Tim (who selected the cask) had explained that this Cognac was selected for that reason. Most millennials in Singapore are more familiar with Scotch or Japanese whisky, and are less enthused about the overt sweetness of blended Cognac.
This lightly fruity and almost refreshing VT would pair perfectly with an oily and rich duck confit.
24-Year-Old Glen Grant 1998 Single Cask
Let's begin with 3 fun facts: Glen Grant is the first Scotch distillery to bottle their own single malts, and the first to install electrical lighting (in 1861). It is also the only existing Scotch distillery still named after its founding family - the Grants.
Glen Grant Distillery is located in Speyside, and produces an oily and fruit-forward distillate that allows it to withstand incredibly long periods of maturation in Sherry casks. Just for comparison, Glenmorangie is well-known for its light spirit, which cannot be used for prolonged aging in too active casks.
Much of Glen Grant's signature flavour profile of vanilla, toffee and light fruits can be found in this expression, which had been matured for 24 years in a mixture of cask styles.
Colour: Pale gold.
Nose: This is a very light style of whisky with a clean and sweet nose that presents gentle vanilla notes, Martinelli's apple juice and green grapes. That said, compared to the VT Cognac, this feels a little heavier and more substantial.
Palate: Medium-light bodied, mildly sweet with darker notes. Light vanilla cream and toffee with breakfast toast. Several minutes allows it to develop more complexity: some honey shows up together with a pleasant woody-nuttiness from pine nuts. There's also an earthy muskiness felt on the back-palate. I can't quite quite discern too much fruitiness in this one.
The finish is short with a quickly fading aroma of vanilla and honey. Bookended by a slight bitterness of light roast coffee.
This is surprisingly fresh for a 24-year-old whisky, and I suspect it had spent most of its time in a refill hogshead that allows for gentle maturation without imparting too much oakiness.
This is even less sweet than the VT. The light honeyed sweetness is balanced by a very gentle oakiness. Just enough to add complexity without tipping the scales. Once again, the keyword is balance.
I imagine Japanese whisky lovers – the sort who like light, floral and slight Mizunara oak musk – would appreciate this Glen Grant expression.
This one is definitely great with some sashimi. The mild sweetness here compliments the delicate complexity and sweetness of raw fish.
30-Year-Old Bunnahabhain 1991 Single Cask
The Jay Gatsby of the series is this 30-year-old Bunnahabhain, which is also my favourite of the trio.
Bunnahabhain single malts are immediately recognisable and stand out to Scotch drinkers for the fact that they make some of the most conventionally friendly, approachable and un-smoky whiskies despite being situated in the peat stronghold of Scotland: the Islay region.
This bottle was distilled in 1991 and bottled this year, having spent the entirety of these 30 years in a Sherry butt.
Nose: Much much bolder in aroma than the rest, but still very well-rounded. It actually feels smoother and more approachable than the VT Cognac.
Opens with so much richness and sweetness, redolent of dense fruit cake, Lotus biscuits and baked cinnamon buns. There's a layer of earthiness or mild tobacco notes that cut through the sweetness, offering a good counterweight.
Palate: Rich, well-rounded and cohesively integrated with a good mixture of sweets and bitter chocolate. Very lovely greeting of sweet dates and red raisins integrated with a footnote of dry black tea notes and leatheriness.
The palate evolves over the next few minutes. Sweetness begins to retire somewhat, while roasted hazelnuts begin to show. Black tea notes head in the direction of aromatic tobacco. A mild ginger spice develops on the tip of the tongue.
The finish is long and elegant with more raisins, heavy black tea notes, tobacco and a slightly woodsy burnt sage character.
Old whisky is expensive not simply because a good portion is lost to Angels' Share over the many years. There is always a risk that - if not meticulously-managed - a batch whisky would be forgotten in a cask and eventually turn out to be over-oaked. Finding the right balance is a challenge.
Maturation for this 30-year-old Bunnahabhain is very well-executed. The layered notes of oak, black tea and tobacco sit well with the sweeter notes of baked goods and raisins. The flavours are bold but nonetheless balanced.
With such a rich palate, Tim recommends pairing this with some sticky date pudding - a slice of which was graciously offered by the hosts. I really can't think of a better pairing.
All 3 expressions are very well balanced and approachable.
Despite their relatively high strength, everyone I've spoken to who have tasted them seem to find both the Vallein Tercinier and Glen Grant light and incredibly easy down the throat. Both of these expressions would appeal to new drinkers who might not have even tried spirits neat in the glass.
The Bunnahabhain is obviously much bolder in flavour and would appeal more to a long-time drinker. But on the whole, its minimal peat levels and well-rounded character make for a very good dram to introduce new drinkers to Islay style Scotch.
- The Great Gatsby Vallein Tercinier Petit Champagne 1994 Single Cask (700 ml) - S$368
- The Great Gatsby Glen Grant 1998 Single Cask (700 ml) - S$568
- The Great Gatsby Bunnahabhain 1991 Single Cask
- 700 ml - S$988
- 1500 ml - S$2,088
Given the overwhelming amount of pre-orders, it's quite likely that some of these bottles are already out of stock by the time you read this. If you are interested in acquiring one, make haste in enquiring with email@example.com.
Why is XM Studios moving into bottling Spirits?
You might be scratching your head wondering why a company that makes character figurines from Marvel and DC comics is suddenly moving into bottling spirits.
The company fundamentally regards itself a product-agnostic design studio, and is not beholden to one category despite its strong accolades in the comics figurines space.
Its foray into the spirits industry brings the same philosophy of original design and craftsmanship into the realm of creating limited edition bottles of whiskies and other spirits.
I've been briefed that XM Studios and Malt Sainte are already close to finalising details of their second spirits collection. This second collection would be inspired by a particular Japanese superhero that would theatrically wrestle with giant monsters from the sea.
I'm guessing Japanese whisky and potentially shochu would be involved. You heard it here first!
Filling a bookshelf? We picked these for you.