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Why Glenglassaugh Sandend Highland Single Malt Is VinePair’s Best Scotch of the Year (2023)

In the world of Scotch, more emphasis is usually placed on age than alcohol content, but Glenglassaugh’s Sandend Highland Single Malt challenges that concept. At an even-keeled 50.5 percent ABV with no age statement given, this whisky is testament to the promising experimental Scotches often overlooked in favor of the aged, assertive expressions that have dominated the space for years.

Sanded Highland Single Malt is an ode to the crescent beach of Sandend Bay, a picaresque surf spot on the north coast of Scotland. It pours a bright golden hue, and drips with notes of seaside salinity and ripe, tropical fruits. Thanks to maturation periods in bourbon, sherry, and manzanilla casks, the whisky’s fruity character gives way to the oak, vanilla, and butterscotch that emerge on subsequent sips. It’s refreshing to see such a bright, expressive Scotch of this quality, especially for only $70 per bottle. For these reasons alone, this expression has more than earned its position as the fourth-best spirit we tasted this year, and its title as VinePair’s best Scotch whisky of 2023.

Credit: Gabrielle Johnson

Not only is this an exceptional bottle from a craft perspective, but it marks Glenglassaugh’s successful 21st-century push into the world of fine Scotches. The distillery itself has been around for well over 100 years, but much of its history is punctuated by long periods of inactivity that hindered its momentum, despite the exceptional quality of its products. The distillery was established in 1875 by grocer James Moir and his two nephews, Alexander and William Morrison, in the village of Portsoy just outside Scotland’s Speyside region. The area was locally known as the site of many underground distilleries producing some of the nation’s best whisky at the time, and the specific location of the Glenglassaugh distillery — on high ground, overlooking the North Sea — was chosen for its close proximity to nearby barley fields and the refined, clean waters of the Glassaugh Springs.

After Moir and William Morrison passed away, Alexander sold the distillery to Highland Distillers in 1892 before its eventual closing in 1907. It lay dormant for 53 years, reopening in an upgraded facility for sporadic production runs from 1960 to 1986, but then it closed again — this time, seemingly for good.

Then, the unexpected happened. An investor group purchased and refurbished the distillery in 2008. After releasing some of the remaining pre-1986 stock of bottles to roaring acclaim, the distillery began producing experimental spirits with a focus on expressions with no age statement, notably “The Spirit Drink That Dare Not Speak Its Name” and “The Spirit Drink that Blushes To Speak Its Name.” (For clarity, neither of those bottles were whiskies, but mashes of malted barley that were fermented, distilled twice, and bottled at 50 percent ABV without aging. The latter spent six months maturing in red wine casks, imparting a rose-colored hue to the spirit.) Though admittedly strange spirits to come out of a Scotch distillery, these two long-winded labels foreshadowed the experimentation that we would see from Glenglassaugh down the line. Nonetheless, the distillery changed hands when Benriach Distillery Company purchased it in 2013, and then Brown-Forman, owner of Jack Daniel’s, bought Benriach and all of its subsidiaries in 2016.

Glenglassaugh is admittedly the least known of Brown-Forman’s three Scotch brands, due at least in part to the distillery’s long periods of dormancy and repeated tinkering with expressions and packaging since 2016. But perhaps that lack of mainstream recognition could be what’s allowed the distillery to become so experimental in recent years. If Sandend Highland Single Malt is hard proof of Glenglassaugh master blender Rachel Barrie’s prowess, we can’t wait to experience the other non-age-statement Highland single malts she may produce down the line.

Regardless of clout and circumstance, Glenglassaugh’s 2023 expressions ascended to a new level. While we certainly enjoyed the flagship 12 Year Old, the Sandend Highland Single Malt was the bottle that truly captivated us. From its fruit-driven nose and punchy ABV to its warming finish and kiss of salinity, this spirit marks an exciting new direction in Scotch where age statements play second fiddle to experimentation and discovery. Cheers to the team at Glenglassaugh, and to a promising rebirth of a storied distillery.

The article Why Glenglassaugh Sandend Highland Single Malt Is VinePair’s Best Scotch of the Year (2023) appeared first on VinePair.

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