*Sincere thanks to VL and 360 Communications for the sample.
Cutty Sark’s Prohibition Edition came out late in 2013, and was an intriguing entry into the usually staid world of blended Scotch. It has several things going for it to separate it from that herd, whilst also carrying a reasonable price tag. It also has the requisite marketing backstory, and while I acknowledge the necessary low-level evil of brands marketing the their products and, you know, maybe stretching the truth about a few things along the way, I also think all that marketing is fair game and always ripe for a little good-natured criticism. The back of the Prohibition Edition bottle proudly proclaims the whisky is a “salute to the notorious Captain William S. McCoy, who smuggled Cutty Sark blended Scotch whisky into America during the Prohibition era of the 1920’s. His impeccable reputation for only dealing in the finest, genuine & unadulterated liquor – gave rise to Cutty Sark being referred to as ‘THE REAL McCOY’.” Sounds good, right? A nice little blurb that quenches the Prohibition/craft-cocktail/nostalgic seal-of-quality thirst young drinkers of today routinely suffer from. Perhaps a closer look…
Let’s start with Ol’ Captain McCoy. William McCoy was a real person, though according to the majority of sources, his name was William Frederick McCoy, not William S. McCoy…two minutes of googling seems to confirm that much. McCoy’s claim to fame was being a non-drinking, savvy, ruthless rum-runner in the early days of Prohibition. He made quite a fortune running liquor back and forth from the Caribbean and did so on his own terms, reportedly steering clear of organized crime, and always selling quality, un-cut booze. Though they were called rum-runners, these water-bound bootleggers carried all sorts of tasty beverages along with rum; rye, Irish whiskey, Scotch, Canadian, you name it. McCoy got his start in the Caribbean with rum, and then moved into higher profit spirits like rye, Irish, and Canadian whiskies. Did McCoy run Scotch as well? Sure, quite possibly. Did he specifically run Cutty Sark as the bottle so proudly proclaims? That’s a little trickier to say with any certainty. It’s, again, possible that on an occasion or two, he had some Cutty Sark aboard, but to say he ran enough Cutty to forever tie his name and the phrase “the real McCoy” to the brand seems a stretch. Cutty Sark was first introduced in March of 1923. McCoy began running booze in 1921, and had already made a name for himself and his quality booze by the time Cutty Sark hit the scene. He was arrested and left the rum-running trade in November, 1923. So while it’s possible he carried enough Cutty in those seven months to warrant a backstory like this one, it’s also a little unlikely.
As for the phrase, “the real McCoy”, it’s a little much to imply that the phrase originated with Cutty Sark and William McCoy. Sure, maybe ol’ Bill’s exploits helped cement it into the public lexicon, but the phrase existed long before that. More than likely, it grew out of the phrase “the real MacKay” which was part of a Scottish poem named “Deil’s Hallowe’en” which was published in Glasgow in 1856 (coincidently, the phrase is used to describe a drop of good whisky.) The actual phrase appears in James S. Bond’s 1881 book, “The rise and Fall of the ‘Union club’; or Boy life in Canada”. Several others along the way have laid claim to the phrase: railroad engineers preferring an engine part made by one Elijah McCoy, a cattleman named Joseph McCoy who helped to establish the Chisholm Trail, any number or characters from the silly Hatfield-McCoy feud, rival branches of the Scottish MacKay clan arguing over who was the most…MacKay-ish, and a supposed nitroglycerin salesman from Pennsylvania named McCoy. In the U.S., the most popular origin of the phrase stars “Kid McCoy,” a bare-knuckled boxer who fought between the years 1890 and 1914 (again, well before Cutty Sark debuted.) Kid McCoy reportedly earned the name after some belligerent drunk challenged the slight middleweight champion, doubting he was the actual Kid McCoy. One punch laid out the glass-jawed sot, who upon regaining consciousness, exclaimed,”that was the real McCoy!”…or something like that. It’s worth noting that Kid McCoy was just a stage name, his real name was Norman Selby…”Real McCoy”, indeed. It’s not really worth noting that in the ring, the Real McSelby was a bit of a
cheater trickster, and out of it, not a great one with the ladies having married ten times (thrice to the same poor and apparently not-too-bright woman), and having gone to prison for killing a girlfriend. He also didn’t manage his money too well despite starring in a couple of D.W. Griffith movies, being involved in myriad business ventures, and even working a bit for Henry Ford. Kid McCoy ended up killing himself in a Detroit hotel in 1940, wrapping up a fairly tumultuous life. Like I said, that last bit isn’t really germane to the issue, but interesting nonetheless.
In any case, here in the U.S., the Kid McCoy story is generally assumed to be the origin of the popular “real McCoy” phrase. So, yeah, Berry Bros. & Rudd and Cutty Sark came up with a nice backstory, but it didn’t take a whole lot of interweb sleuthing to poke a few holes in it. But that’s what whisky marketing is there for right? To sell products and for whisky geeks to sit around and make fun of? To be fair, while the backstory part of the marketing seems a little hastily assembled, the packaging part is actually pretty cool – the black glass bottle and black-on-craft-paper label look good on the shelf. Drinking this side by side with the standard, yellow-labelled stuff, you can tell it’s Cutty Sark, the lineage is there. It has a somewhat similar flavor profile, but it obviously has much more malt whisky and a touch of peat as well. Aged (though they don’t say for how long) entirely in ex-bourbon American Oak, not chill filtered and bottled at a much higher proof, it’s a much more muscular, complex Cutty
The Nose: Malt…and lots of it! There’s malted milk powder and sweet barley malt with a hint of dark beer. Quite honeyed with a good dose of caramelized sweetness as well in the form of nutty, slightly burnt toffee. Notes of spiced orange, dried vanilla bean, and dried cherries round out the sweeter side, while a subtle hint of damp peat lends an earthy counterpoint. Greenish clove, cinnamon bark, a whiff of star anise, and a tiny trailing of dry wood smoke. With a bit of water, the caramel sweetness is lessened somewhat, the beery malt, citrus, vanilla, and oak notes gain a bit more strength.
The Palate: Even more caramel and toffee than on the nose. This is just dripping with caramel sauce and a bit of vanilla syrup initially, even having a slightly viscous mouthfeel. The malt is now chocolately and more restrained than on the nose. Subtle hints of salted almonds and dried orange peel lead to a swell of youthfully hot, earthy, tannic spice. Toasted oak, bright cinnamon, powdered ginger, and crushed peppercorns. While the palate is slightly smokier than the nose, the smoke is still quite subtle, just a breath emerges towards the end. Adding water brings out more malty notes, tones down the sweetness a little, and just smooths out and integrates a rather youthful edge .
The Finish: Longish, mouth-watering, a little sharp, and still drenched with caramel. That tiny bit of smoke lingers as does vanilla bean, cinnamon, ginger, and white pepper.
Thoughts: This really grew on me. At first, I think I just didn’t care for the malty sweetness transitioning to the young, peppery end of the palate. After coming back to it a few times, I began to enjoy its surprisingly rugged yet quite sweet profile. Perhaps a little bit of open time for the bottle helped tie this one together, I don’t know. There is a nice complexity here and an appealing progression. The high malt content is clear, though so is the youth of the whiskies involved. Sipped neat, it’s an interesting dram, perhaps a bit of a throwback in its malty, slightly peated style. A little water tones down some of the unique sweetness of the nose, and rounds off some of the edginess of the palate. It works well in a Rob Roy (my default, baseline Scotch-based cocktail) and holds up quite well on its own or over ice. I see this out there for $25-$30, which I think is a good deal for a relatively unique, relatively high-proof blend.