A review of Odem Mountain Syrah Reserve 2009 and several Benromach Scotch Whiskies.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week March 15, 2012
Traditionally one begins learning the laws of the Jewish holidays 30 days before they begin. This means focusing on Passover just as Purim has finished. Activity that, of course, entails so much more than just hitting the books to refresh ourselves on the dos and don’ts – for one has also to think of potential guests and menus. Naturally, this leads us to ponder which wines to serve.
This week’s search for Passover wines takes us to the northernmost winery in Israel, Odem Mountain, located in the foothills of Mount Hermon. Odem means “ruby” which describes the color of the local rocks. Blessed with spectacular views, Odem Mountain is part of an extinct volcano surrounded by a forest reserve populated with trees, orchids and deer. The winery was established in 2003 by Edith and Michael Alfasi. It is a true family affair with all of their children involved with the winery. Odem has its own vineyards but also utilizes grapes grown under contract nearby, as well as from the Galilee and the Judean Hills. They made their first kosher wines in 2007 and the winery has become a destination for tours, tastings and special events.
Odem Mountain Winery’s award-winning, top-tier Alfasi reds are blends of Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot. Sadly these are limited bottlings and difficult to find in the U.S. They also release Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah under the Odem Mountain and Volcanic labels as well as a port-like dessert wine and cherry ale. Thankfully their other wines are more widely available, including the excellent, nonmevushal Odem Mountain Syrah Reserve 2009 ($46). It opens with floral and blackberry scents that persist into layers of nicely balanced blueberry, toasty oak, pepper and dark fruit. It is a perfect accompaniment to most of the traditional seder main dishes.
Spirits-wise, we are not yet ready to focus on Passover-approved options – largely because these remain sadly very limited in variety, though thankfully not as limited in quality. We will make some recommendations as we get closer, but for now, not so much. Instead, we thought we’d go back to Scotland – surprise, surprise – to heartily recommend the whiskies of the Benromach Distillery.
Benromach means “shaggy mountain” in Scot’s Gaelic, though its past is no shaggy dog story. Established in 1898 during one of Scotland’s greatest whisky booms, Benromach has had its share of closings and re-openings over the years during the various ups and downs of the industry. Benromach whisky was always well-regarded, though mostly for blending purposes and very little of its malt whisky was released directly to the public. When Benromach was last closed – “mothballed” as the trade prefers to put it – in 1983 most people thought it would never reopen.
Then, 10 years later, in 1993, the distillery was rescued in a bold move by Gordon & MacPhail (G&M), the legendary purveyors and independent bottlers of single-malt Scotch whisky. Indeed, firms like G&M, Cadenhead and, more recently, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, helped create the “single malt” brand category itself, insisting that consumers would desire distinct, unblended whiskies.
G&M were smart enough to recognize that the success of “single malt” as a category type meant that more and more distilleries would release their own single malts and would, therefore, be increasingly disinclined to sell their whisky to independent bottlers. After all, allowing others to market your product diminishes your control over your brand.
We’ve written about them before: G&M is one of the greatest independent bottlers of single-malt whiskies. Established in 1895 by James Gordon and John MacPhail as a grocery, wine and spirits shop, G&M’s “bricks and mortar” store remains in the same location where it started more than a century ago.
After purchasing the distillery, warehouses and remaining stocks, however, G&M had to double down on its investment as the works had been gutted years before. So all new equipment had to be installed throughout the distillery, and the site had to be completely refurbished. Additional delays in obtaining the trademark and water rights meant that the official re-opening wasn’t held until 1998 – a ribbon-cutting ceremony graced by Charles, Prince of Wales and Duke of Rothesay (the preferred Scottish title for the heir apparent). They added a visitor center a year later, and the first whisky distilled under G&M’s auspices was released in 2004.
Here then are some interesting and pleasurable Benromach whiskies to enjoy before and after Passover:
Benromach Traditional Single Malt Scotch Whisky (40 percent abv; $33) this entry-level introduction is sprightly, balanced, clean, a bit smoky and a tad raw or spirity, but delicious and easy drinking with notes of ginger, honey, peat smoke, nuts, citrus, and something floral.
Benromach 10-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent abv; $45) this enjoyable, slightly spirity, slightly peaty whisky offers aromas and flavors of malt, oak, vanilla, ginger, citrus and something like fudge, but with drier notes to offset the sweetness. The finish is bittersweet with some light spiciness.
Benromach Peat Smoke, Batch 4, Single Malt Scotch Whisky (46 percent abv; $57) was distilled in 2002 and bottled in 2011, peated to a level of 35 phenols parts per million (approaching Caol Ila and Lagavulin peat ranges) and aged in used American Oak. This vibrant, smoky whisky offers slightly raw notes of charred oak, iodine, and tar with underlying fruit (green apple and pear), barley, honey, toffee, white pepper and traces of ginger, with a cured, smoked meat savoriness jumping into the mix. Not over the top, but a little weird and aggressive – yet in an interesting way, for those who like smoky whisky.
Benromach 30-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent abv; $385) is surprisingly youthful and vigorous for its age, with aromas and flavors of ginger, raisins, apples, walnuts, peaches, brown sugar, molasses, cocoa, toffee, honey and vanilla – smoke and black pepper lurks in background somewhere, too. Many layers here, with remarkably very little oak bullying its way through. Not cheap, but then 30-year-old whiskies never are. L’Chaim!