St. Magdalene 19, 1979, Rare Malts

St. Magdalene 19, Rare MaltsSt. Magdalene, also known as Linlithgow, was one of the casualties of the wave of distillery closures in the early 1980s. In terms of its current status the gurus seem to put it a little below Port Ellen and Brora: Serge has it in the “Premier Cru Classé” in his rankings. It must be said though that it doesn’t seem to inspire quite that level of devotion among the rank and file as do Port Ellen or Brora or even Caperdonich or Rosebank or Lochside (all of which closed later). This may be because there’s not as much malt out there from St. Magdalene/Linlithgow for those of us who came later in the game to have tried. I’ve myself barely sampled any of the meagre offerings available on the US market.

The bottle I am reviewing today, however, is fairly uncontroversially considered one of the great releases of the last decade and half. It was part of Diageo’s respected Rare Malts series and has received very high scores from most respected sources: most notably, the redoubtable Johannes van den Heuvel (the now retired founder of the Malt Maniacs, whose Malt Madness is one of the few essential whisky sites) has given it a score of 97/100. That score would be stratospheric by any standard but is particularly striking coming from the usually parsimonious and unexcitable Johannes. I was thus very excited to be able to taste it after getting a sample in a swap; however, I’ve held off for a long time in reviewing it as I have to admit I’m not sure what point there is in someone like me reviewing something so widely lauded by my betters: if i love it as well I add an inconsequential “me too” to the chorus, and who really cares if I don’t? Still, I’ve rarely allowed the fear of redundancy to trump my love of the sound of my own voice, and so here goes.

St. Magdalene 19, 1979 (63.8%; Rare Malts; from a sample received in a swap)

Nose: Quite closed at first (not a surprise given the strength). Then some stone fruit emerges (tart peach, a little apricot) along with polished wood and some lime. Then it begins to become quite floral and the fruit begins to intensify. There’s a stronger malty note too now and some honey over it all. With more time the fruit gets sweeter (Rainier cherries?) and the whole gets quite intoxicating. Some vanilla too now and light creaminess and a bit of a bite from the oak. Okay, let’s take a sip. A drop of water brightens up the fruit and really brings it out in waves: apricots and peaches and plums cooked down and baked in a tart.

Palate: Drinkable but hot and closed. Okay, let’s see if my tongue adjusts on the second sip. Yes, on the second sip there’s some of the fruit, with the lime coming on strongest, followed by some peppery wood and just a hint of smoke. But this needs water. Yes, water makes it much more approachable and it’s the polished wood that leads now and the lime has turned to mellower lemon. Still quite peppery, but I’m not getting that hint of smoke now. Far less malty than expected from the nose. Water also brings out the wood more clearly but it’s a counterpoint to the fruit and not at all offensive.

Finish: Long. Limey, peppery, woody (not tannic or astringent).

Comments: Well, this was very good. But I was expecting the skies to open and the world to be made whole again, and they didn’t and it wasn’t. Maybe that has something to do with the state of the bottle when the sample was poured, may be not. So it goes. The nose is really outstanding (especially with water) but the palate is not at that level. I’m very glad I got to try it.

Rating: 90 points.

Thanks to Rich for the sample!

5 thoughts on “St. Magdalene 19, 1979, Rare Malts

  1. this could also be a case where sample size is a factor, and having the bottle helps. these were my tasting suggestions from Johannes, who sent me the bottle:

    “The Saint Magdalene could improve a bit after a few weeks of breathing inside a half empty bottle – and the great fun with that one is A) taking a VERY big glass and take at least an hour with it, and B) add water in many very small steps.”

    from our discussions, i know that whiskies Johannes rates highly (GlenDronach 25yo 1968, Laphroaig 10yo C/S Green Stripe, St. Magdalene 19yo Rare Malts) are ones he finds to be complex and nuanced, evolving with time and water, without getting tired, diffuse or unbalanced.

    in this case, i know you didn’t have a VERY big glass, and for that i take responsibility. ;)

    nevertheless, as i’ve said before, personal tastes are what make all this interesting to me. if we all absolutely loved the same whiskies, and disliked others, it would get tedious.

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  2. To your last statement: absolutely!

    And the question of whether a review of a (small’ish) sample is representative of a bottle is always an open one. Even with a larger sample a pour from one stage in the bottle’s life might be quite different from a pour from another (as Johannes seems to indicate would be in this case); and even if you’re reviewing your own bottle each review is a snapshot of a particular tasting and not an overview of the bottle.

    Looking at the Monitor after the fact I see that a decent number of Maniacs scored it in the mid-high 80s. I guess the acclaim was not as universally high as I’d thought. And I see that Konstantin G. gave it a head-scratching 60 points–did he only have a small sip?

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  3. The RM St. Magdalene is a complicated beast. I opened a bottle of this expression when I bought it around 2003 or so. Upon opening I too found it to very tight and petulant. I shelved it and came back to it once or twice a year. As the level reduced it opened up and allowed me in. By 2009 it had fully blossomed offering a full body and complexity that was everything it was billed to be. I polished off the last of it last year and it was great to the last drop. Was it worth original retail? Uh, he’ll yes. Is it worth current auction price? Hmmm, probably not. But I don’t think any whisky is worth more than retail.

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