This year Cutty Sark celebrates its 100th anniversary. It was back in 1923, at the height of Prohibition and well after many of the great blends were already established, that it was first launched. But with its consistent quality and charming historical narrative, the blended Scotch whisky carved a place for itself in the world and has remained a fixture in bars and drinks cabinets since.
Cutty Sark was created by Berry Bros. & Rudd, one of London’s oldest wine and spirits merchants, as a contrast to the heavier, smokier whiskies that were prevalent at the time. A lighter, more accessible blend that would appeal to a broader audience, particularly in the United States, was the brief.
The name came from the Cutty Sark ship, a clipper known for its speed that you can visit in Greenwich, London. The boat itself got its name from a line in Tam O’Shanter which refers to a ‘sark’, an undergarment that author Robbie Burns called ‘cutty’, meaning too short. The now famous yellow label on the green Cutty Sark whisky bottle was actually a printing error but it stuck and is now part of the iconography of the brand.
There’s three core whiskies in the range, starting with the classic Cutty Sark blend. It’s a mix of 70% grain and 30% malt, with Glenrothes (the old stalwart of this brand and once owned by Berry Bros. & Rudd) and Glen Moray (the single malt distillery owned by Cutty backers La Martiniquaise) providing the bulk of the malt. Great blends have great foundations and that is certainly a mighty mix of single malts that does translate to the whisky. It’s Speyside sweet in character, gentle in delivery, boasts a little bit of smoke, and is ideal to mix.
Then there’s Prohibition, a more sherried customer that hits a tough sweet spot of price and availability with quality and versatility. It’s bottled at an impressive 50% ABV, a touch of genius that gives it more weight and flavour than many of its competitors and allows the nutty, spicier sherried to shine. There’s also a delectable tablet and peach note too which feels very Cutty Sark.
In 2021, Cutty Sark added an age statement. Cutty Sark 12 Year Old is another fine move in this market, a blend with a proper age statement, but without the big increase in price. The trade-off compared to Prohibition is that the 12 Year Old is bottled at 40% ABV, however, it’s still a fine mix of sherry and bourbon cask whisky that boasts a gentle fruitiness that’s all peaches and apricots and pears bolstered by flavours of milky coffee, nutty sherry, and a hint of spice that is just a little too heavy on the finish. For that price, however, it’s another cracker overall.
Despite an impressive core range, in recent years it feels like Cutty Sark hasn’t really got the love it needs. Single malts have been stealing the spotlight and while the blend is big in the States, across Europe, and Japan, it’s not shone as bright as it could in its home market. Owners La Martiniquaise are attempting to change all that and the recent launch of a new whisky, 100th-anniversary special edition blend is a good place to start.
We attended the tasting for the new launch on the Cutty Sark ship itself. While there’s no grocer for Johnnie Walker remaining to tie the brand back to its roots, there is a bloody big boat in London that is the most fitting venue. Whisky maker Stephen Woodcock had the licence to experiment with a vague but firm brief: “make something nice”. He ended up settling on a parcel of 23-year-old malt labelled “sherry into Port”, which meant it was aged initially in oloroso sherry casks before a secondary maturation, about five years, in Port casks.
The fact that it’s a 23-year-old expression is fitting as Cutty Sark was founded on 23 March 1923 and artist James McBey (present at the meeting where Cutty was dreamt up with Francis Berry and Hugh Rudd and may have been one who suggested the name) was also born on the 23 December 1883. A “special stock” of old grain (we’re taking ’70s stuff here) was added to make it a blended whisky and then the whole thing was married for a further 100 days in Port casks. A nosing panel picked the whisky in the bottle now as its unanimous favourite, in concurrence with Woodcock.
Cutty Sark Centenary Edition was filled into 1,435 bottles at 52.2% ABV. It comes presented in a special Centenary gift box that is designed to resemble a mainsail, with a white rope and golden eyelets in a nod to the Cutty Sark ship. The bottle’s stopper was also designed in the shape of a ship’s cleat. Neat. It’s now available from Master of Malt and we thought very highly of it indeed.
For my money, this is one of the better big blended brands around, with a comprehensive core range, and more premium expressions like Cutty Sark Centenary Edition demonstrate both the mastery behind the craft of blending and the kind of whisky that can be made by companies with this kind of history and access. Here’s our very own tasting note:
Nose: Chocolate off the bat – grated dark chocolate, baking spice-laden cabinets, forest gateau, opening up with freeze-dried strawberries and strawberry laces, hints of ginger, digestive biscuits heading into cheesecake territory, with a herbal sage-y edge.
Palate: Fruit salad, some tropical notes, kiwi/starfruit, a touch of grapefruit balanced by a Mars bar caramel and nougat spine. Really delicious stuff.
Finish: Cocoa, caramel, a touch of coffee? Satisfying tiramisu.
You can buy Cutty Sark Centenary Edition here.