In the history of single malt Scotch whisky the names of some significant figures are not always widely recognised but have a passionate fan base among those in the know. Two friends, Darrell Corti and Narsai David, played an important role in pioneering single malt and single cask Scotch whisky in the US in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Their whiskies have since developed a cult status and received some of the highest scores ever given by Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun. Whilst not impossible to taste their legendary whiskies, they are now extremely difficult to track down, not least because most of the remaining bottles are stowed away in private collections.
The whiskies were born from their two ventures; Darrell Corti had an upmarket Italian grocery store in Sacramento and Narsai David had a top restaurant in Kensington, San Diego.
Corti Brothers developed its wines and spirits arm under the stewardship of Darrell, son of Frank Corti, who had originally set up the business in 1947 along with his brother Gino. Narsai David began catering for major bands at special events before setting up his restaurant in 1972. The restaurant was described by the New York Times at the time as having one of the best wine cellars in the world. Corti Brothers continues trading to this day whereas Narsai’s restaurant closed in 1986.
The pair’s collaboration began in the late 1970s when Narsai David visited Avery’s in Bristol, England to taste whiskies. The samples he brought back to the United States became the first whiskies released by Corti Bros in 1978. They later worked with R.W.Duthie & Co. of Aberdeen (which also bottled whisky for Silvano Samaroli).
The pair worked closely together on dozens of subsequent releases, taking advantage of a downturn within the Scotch whisky industry at that time to secure casks from some of the greatest distilleries and bottling in clear glass so that the individual colours of the whiskies could, as Corti explained, be ‘shown to best advantage’.
There is no doubt that Darrell Corti and Narsai David’s collaborative releases were somewhat revolutionary at the time, even if people perhaps didn’t realise or appreciate it until much later. Their enthusiasm for and unfashionable dedication to the spirit ensured that many exceptional casks which may well have been destined for something far less grand, were bottled for customers of Corti Brothers & Narsai’s to enjoy and cherish in their own right.
‘There is not a great interest in distilled spirits as fine drinks due to their high alcohol content. You owe it to yourself to taste this collection of malt whisky, both as an aperitif and after dinner drink, to appreciate the very high quality found in this type of beverage and its fascinating diversity…Bottled pure and untampered with, these whiskies all show their individuality and quality to the highest possible degree. Some are delicious as aperitifs, others remarkable post prandial drinks. I am quite certain that they will please even the most fastidious connoisseur’. Corti Brothers price list, 1979 (from Collecting Scotch Whisky, Emmanuel Dron).
We have a number of these going under the hammer in our December auction. Here are some of the highlights:
Clynelish 1965 21 Year Old, Bottled 1986
This Clynelish 21 Year Old was distilled in 1965, before the new Clynelish distillery opened in 1968, so it is in fact Brora. It was bottled in 1986 by RW Duthie & Co., selected by Darrell Corti for Corti Brothers and imported to the US by Pellegrini Imports, California.
‘big, fat malt whisky…literally an avalanche of all thing oily, metallic and earthy…Dry but flabbergastingly complex!…makes you keep crying. Absolutely stunning’. 98 points, Serge Valentin, Whiskyfun – one of only a handful of bottles ever to have scored 98 points. Rather impressive.
Springbank 1958, Bottled 1983
Springbank 1958 selected by Narsai David especially for Narsai’s restaurant & Corti Brothers and bottled by RW Duthie & Co. Trivia fans will have spotted that all of Darrell Corti and Narsai David’s 1983 whiskies were bottled at 46% ABV whereas the 1986 bottlings were done at 43% ABV.
‘it’s got the trademark greasiness for sure, but it’s also got unexpected floral scents, maybe even wee whiffs of violets, or maybe even lavender. But nothing to do with the repulsive lavender that could be found elsewhere, this is all very elegant again…beautifully sappy and mentholated, with more smoke and salt in the aftertaste. Almost an Islay in the aftertaste. What an incredible series, these Cortis! This 1958 was simply fabulous’. 95 points Serge Valentin, Whiskyfun.
Highland Park 1966 12 Year Old, Bottled 1978
This Highland Park 12 Year Old was distilled in 1966 and matured in two casks which were blended and bottled in 1978 by Avery’s and imported for Corti Brothers by Marshall Taylor Limited. This was among the first bottles released by Darrell Corti and Narsai David.
The Corti Brothers 1979 price list offers this at $14.98 per bottle, or $151.88 for a case(!): ‘Very Pale, a “clear” whisky almost uncolored. Obviously aged in a white wine cask. Fragrant, very flowery aroma. Less fire than 8 year old; more fruity; flowery character; very, very long finish with a delicate persistence’.
‘Vale Royal’ “Wedderburn” 9 Year Old Rum, Bottled 1970
The only non-whisky amongst this selection, this 9 year old Jamaican rum was especially selected for Corti Brothers and bottled in 1970 by Avery’s of Bristol. It describes itself as a ‘traditional style Jamaica rum, pot distilled, aged for 9 years’.
Neither the terms ‘Vale Royal’ or ‘Wedderburn’ give too much of an indication of the distillery at which it originated, but do tell us what sort of style to expect. Wedderburn was a classification of very heavy, high-ester rums that tended to be used to give weight and flavour to blended rums. ‘Vale Royal’ is generally used to describe rum produced in the style of Vale Royal, a now defunct distillery which closed in 1959 (and also the residence of the Prime Minister of Jamaica).
A ‘fat bastard… [this] takes no prisoners’ 91 points, Serge Valentin, Whiskyfun.
Glen Grant-Glenlivet 1965 19 Year Old, Bottled 1984
Glen Grant-Glenlivet 1965 19 Year Old was bottled in 1984 by RW Duthie & Co. It was selected by Narsai David and Darrell Corti jointly for Narsai’s restaurant and Corti Brothers.
‘The eight new whiskey offering is comprised of those from a single area, Speyside, comparable to, say, the commune of Vosne-Romanée in Burgundy. The greatest names and quality are all concentrated here.’ The parcel of whiskies bottled in 1984 for Narsai David and Darrel Corti as described in the price list dated Fall 1984.
This whisky was originally available for $27.47 per bottle, or $280.19 for a case. Of course with the benefit of hindsight this was a staggeringly good price even taking into account inflation (a quick calculation tells me that you’d be looking at around $110 in 2019), but the market was vastly different back then, particularly in the US, and these things could sit undiscovered on the shelves for years. Corti and David took a leap of faith when they decided to select these whiskies.
Bowmore 1964 22 Year Old, Bottled 1986
This Bowmore 22 year old was selected by Darrell Corti especially for Corti Brothers and bottled at 43% ABV by RW Duthie & Co. Distilled when Bowmore was in its prime, this whisky was described by Corti Brothers as ‘Golden in colour; positive, fruity; long’.
‘Starts light, almost whispering, before more and more lemons (Amalfi, Massimo?) take over, as well as citrons, smoked fish, a feeling of mineral oil (graphite?), and then the expected tropical fruits. Mangos, passion fruits, kiwis and all that. This is a 1960s Bowmore, remember?’ 94 points, Serge Valentin, WhiskyFun.
As well as the above, the collection includes other whiskies from Balmenach, Glenfarclas, Glenlivet, Highland Park, Imperial, Jura, Macallan and Mortlach.