All good things come to an end – a message to my Twitter followers.
It may have come to your attention that recently I deactivated my drams_s Twitter account. If you haven’t, then sit up and pay attention, for I have an announcement to make.
No, I’m not dying, incapacitated, hacked or being forced off the internet against my will. I’ve just come to the conclusion that I’m feeling disillusioned about social media in general. To continue my titles usual tie in with a musical theme, it could be said that “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” and that to this end I need to make a hard decision.
The content I enjoyed and learnt the most from is no longer published with enough regularity (Bob and Matt, both of you need to write more!) and the time I have would much be better spent with a dram with real people or something like that. The truth is that there are a few reasons why I want to go, and now seems as much a good time to do so.
I was only ever on Twitter to promote my own blog, but got dragged into the social scene, which I have to admit I’ve enjoyed, having met some of you in person. It’s been a blast. Regretfully, I’ve become aware that I can’t spend as much time on social media as I could and it’s to this end I’ve decided to call it a day for now. I’ll still be around on Twitter on a personal account and keeping an eye on things, but will not be engaging in the same way for now.
You can still follow my blog if you found it amusing. Go to http://www.tastywhisky.net and you’ll see the latest blog. At the bottom of the post will be the option to follow me by simply entering your email, and when I write something, this will go straight to your inbox. I promise not to spam you, which given my output rate at the moment is unlikely, nor will I sell your details to the dark web, however tempting and financially lucrative that may be.
Thanks for the memories. Perhaps we’ll catch up some day.
Have you ever had something so precious or important to you that you won’t share it with anybody else? I’m sure that most of us have that little secret that we don’t want to share. There is always in the background that little pleasure that you know of something that nobody else does and for one moment you have got one up on your contemporaries and peers. These small bits of internally held glories can often be as a result of hard work and perseverance and not something you want to give away too readily, lest that wee advantage you have is lost. It is something that I have experienced in two social groups of people I mix in and in both of them this feeling has been building again.
As I live in the Highlands of Scotland, there are plenty of opportunities to get out into the wide outdoors. Camping and hillwalking are great activities and for those who aren’t aware, there exists a type of remote accommodation called bothies. A bothy for the uninitiated is usually an old farm or estate cottage in a remote area that has been abandoned. These are often restored enough to provide a basic shelter for hill walkers. These can be just four walls and a roof, to well maintained buildings with sleeping platforms and a fire place or stove. Almost none have running water and there is no electricity. The best you can expect is that there maybe a couple of seats and a table to get out of the elements.
Bothies are free to use, many being in the care of the Mountain Bothy Association. Until the dawn of the MBA, knowing the location of bothies was very much down to local knowledge, or just looking at a location on a map and walking in to see if the building there exists or is even habitable. Tents were always advisable and still are just in case the bothy is full. If you were lucky, then you might meet a fellow walker and around the fire exchange stories of experiences which may include the locations of other bothies if your fireside companion has deemed you worthy of the knowledge.
Fast forward to the digital age. Now bothy locations that are in the care of the MBA are now published on their website. One member of the MBA went further and published a book detailing the best bothies and how to get to them. No longer did you need to put any effort into finding a doss when out walking. It’s as though bothies for some had lost their magic, as now everybody could find them. Some people wanted to keep “their special bothy” secret and all to themselves without more hordes descending to spoil the wilderness and peace they thought they would have forever. There were also worries about unsavoury characters using bothies as party houses in the wild or vandalising them.
It’s a bit of a double edged sword, as more people interested in bothies also means more people exposed to the MBA and in turn more potential people joining and taking part in the maintenance. Anyway, the misuse of bothies has been going on for years and I don’t believe it is appropriate to blame the Bothy Bible for all this as there is no proof this book did cause a quantifiable rise in problems. I have to say that I was against its publication and still am, although my views have softened somewhat and I’ve allowed myself the slight hypocrisy of buying a copy to see what the fuss was about. Being of a grumpy traditionalist nature, I feel you should earn your stripes and get out there and look for bothies yourself, but prepare to use your tent if you are out of luck. Conceivably that same concept could exist in whisky to a certain degree, as I feel that whisky has many parallels to these issues, generating internal quandaries in people who often have what would be described as misplaced ideals in what whisky represents. I’d even include myself in that potential moral misalignment but experience is telling me I may actually be right this time.
The vast majority of us will have a preference for a distillery or bottling. Even if you don’t, then I do. It is my wee holy grail, my top trump, my little bit of experience that I may have that you don’t and keeps me feeling warm and fuzzy inside. I haven’t ever had a bad bottle or nip from this distillery. It isn’t that well known, yet hides in plain sight. I pass it’s location every now and again, giving me a small bit of anticipation for when I taste it’s golden nectar once more. It was my inquisitive nature that discovered this distillery, not by looking at social media or taking others opinions into account, indeed my first taste was when social media was only physically talking to each other in the pub, well before smart phones and tablets. So let’s just call this distillery Glen Blabbermouth, as I did tell somebody my little secret and advised them to keep quiet about it. Before I knew it, my wee hint was all over the internet circles we share. I see it mentioned more and more, and while this gives me a smug feeling of being ahead of the curve on realising how good it is, I feel worried the name of one of my favourite distilleries is now receiving more exposure in social media.
And here is where whisky forms a dichotomy. It’s supposed to be a social drink, it’s supposed to be shared. Don’t we (I) take part in whisky social media to pass on our experiences and learn from others? By holding something back then do we start to remove more from the community than we contribute? I feel that in my attempt to keep the secret I have from the wider community that I’m doing something wrong, yet the need to share experiences of a delicious and consistent performer burns more of a hole in the mental pocket than currency in the hands of a child staring at the shelves of a toy shop.
It’s not the oneupmanship that drives this feeling towards a veil of secrecy. Forget the days of FOMO, there is a new fear lurking in the mind of this whisky enthusiast, probably even more of us if we’re to be completely honest. Fear of Missing Out will become old hat. FOBO is its new companion – Fear Of Being Outed. It’s a fear that once the whisky that you hold dear becomes more in the community consciousness, that it will become more difficult to get and / or will become as expensive as a jar of Unicorn urine. Let’s face it – some of the bottles that have rocketed into the spotlight as flippers and other assorted parasites have decided are now part of the current whisky zeitgeist may as well be unicorn wee-wee as neither will be drunk due to the insane prices paid. This happened to Springbank – remember when it was relatively easy to get a bottle at RRP without queuing or ballot?
While supplies of Glen Blabbermouth are sustainable, it isn’t as common as some, with only a few official bottlings over the years, it’s mostly available from low volume independent bottle sales. It is maybe understandable why some people keep some whisky secrets to themselves. While I might be wrong to express this feeling, I am currently hoping the heat dies down eventually and I can live my life secure in the knowledge that my favoured whisky is not rising in price due to a sudden popularity when my secret gets out.
As for my indiscreet friend – is he in trouble? No, not really. When you hear of others enjoying bottles from your favourite secret distillery, there is a sense of satisfaction that you may have saved somebody from drinking sub-par whisky. I have also taken the precautionary steps of making another malt one of my secret go to drams. Only this one is definitely being kept secret.
One distillery that I am starting to pay a little more attention to is Linkwood. In common with a lot of distilleries in the Diageo portfolio, it’s not a brand with a massive presence due to mostly being used to provide spirits for blends. But it is unique on my blog, for I have already reviewed it twice and as it turns out, the last time wasn’t so long ago. While the only official bottle is the Flora And Fauna, there are plenty of independent bottlers releasing some very good editions. Gordon and MacPhail do a nice bottle in their distillery labels range at 15 years old. But another whisky bottler that has really made me sit up and take notice is Murray McDavid (MMcD). Both their Spirit of Speyside editions of Auchroisk and Inchgower that I tasted from last year were great, so when Aberdeen Whisky Shop advertised the MMcD Cask Craft range, I was standing up like a meerkat. These were marketed by flavour profile, and it was just coincidence that fruity and sweet happened to be a Linkwood. No age statement, only a cask type (Madeira Barrique), but at £32 a pop I felt it stupid not to. And here is what I found.
Linkwood Fruity & Sweet (MMcD Cask Craft)
Region -Speyside Age – NAS Strength – 44.5% abv Colour – Old Gold, (0.6) with a hint of pink Cask Type – Madeira Barrique Colouring – No Chill Filtered –No
Nose – Raspberry ripple ice cream, hint of vanilla and cereal. Could almost be Cranachan. Sweet white wine. Floral note (rose water) which was similar to Turkish Delight appeared when I rubbed some spirit onto the back of my hand.
Palate – Light oily mouth feel. Quite spirit forward to begin with but not aggressively so, though can be a bit bitter. Raspberries, red currants delivers a small measure of astringency that I find in medium dry white wines. Toasted peanuts and honey. Not very complex at all.
Finish – warming medium finish, sweet with a burst of spices and milk chocolate. Vegetal notes appear, like kale.
Not the best Linkwood I have ever tasted. I quite like a Madeira cask whisky, but this one didn’t light my fire as much as I thought it would. It’s undoubtedly a young whisky, with a spirit forwardness, a lack of depth and also noticeably lacking an age statement. But let’s not get too picky. Here we are easily seeing the distillery character of a light, fruity and slightly grainy spirit, which I got more in the nose than the palate. To be disappointed is a valid point but perhaps the cask craft here is the subtlety in which the finish has been applied. It isn’t a bad dram, despite being a little thin. £32 wasn’t a bad price to pay for this but there are better value drams out there.
As I’ve reviewed this distillery now, it’s not my new secret favourite distillery, though it does have a tenuous link to the one that is. There’s one thing sure and certain – I won’t be telling you what is!
“Times, they are a changing” sang Bob Dylan. Whilst it is true that nothing stands still, as human beings most of us thrive on being surrounded by things that are familiar, that we are comfortable using, things that make us feel happy. People like things, it’s no secret. For me, my first love is music. While I’m not a talented musician in any way, shape or form despite owning a handful of musical instruments, I do love listening to music and have a CD / record collection to back that up. I’m sitting here wondering how many readers have actually noticed that most of my articles or reviews start with some sort of connection to music, usually song titles. The hardest one was my Speyburn 18 review but that nicely tied into thoughts about the life of Queen Elizabeth II.
One thing I miss more than the Queen (and believe me, there are plenty of those) is the passing of my favourite record shop in Aberdeen, One-Up records. I seem to remember them on George Street, as well as a shop in Rosemount Viaduct. Both shops closed to amalgamate to a larger, single shop in Diamond Street, just off of Union Street which was formerly the main shopping area of Aberdeen. Eventually they expanded again and moved to Belmont Street, but events beyond the control of the owners were already in play. The beginning of the end was in motion and I’m not sure if either of the two owners realised this at the time. If I have timed my release of this blog correctly, it will coincide with the 10th anniversary of the demise of One-Up. And I’m still mourning.
The passing of this record emporium is pretty traumatic, and while this may sound over dramatic, it isn’t. I used to spend hours there looking for new music when I got home from a work trip. Walking out with less than 5 albums was rare. But with an increase of streaming and a decline in the amount of people buying physical music, coupled with crippling rates, the end was nigh. With one of the owners wanting to retire, the fate of the shop was sealed. Never to return.
About 10 months after One Up closed, I moved to the Highlands and found a new independent record store – Imperial Records in the Inverness Victorian Market. A year later it too was gone, with an all too familiar story of falling physical sales.
Music and whisky do have slight parallels if you care to think of it in a similar way to me. If the wider market rejects it, eventually it is lost. Things we treasure will either change or disappear completely. While we are told that for whisky we’ve never had it so good with choice and variety, the thing is that has been the same with the music industry. It is my curmudgeonly feeling that just because we have more, doesn’t necessarily make it better. That’s an unfair statement to make considering both are just a matter of preference and taste. But while it could be argued that there are no such things as bad whisky or music, I’d argue there is but thankfully these are very much in the minority. Loch Dhu or Fujikai 10 are the ones that spring to mind that got universal disapproval from the enthusiast, becoming the Marilyn Mansons of the whisky world.
The whisky I’m tasting for this article is from a lost distillery, Glenugie. Formerly the most eastern whisky distillery in Scotland, it had a chequered history throughout its life until drawing its last breath in 1983, the first of many to fall in the mass industry cull of the next 2-3 years. I’ve already tasted a whisky from this distillery for this blog, and you can read this here. This sample was a very generous swap from @ayewhisky on Twitter, and I’ve had it for two years while waiting for a suitable occasion. It never came, but if remembering glories of the past such as the best record shop in Northern Scotland, I might as well reminisce about a distillery long gone.
Glenugie 32 y.o (1977) – Signatory Vintage
Region – Highland Age -32 y.o Strength – 46% abv Colour – Russet Muscat (1.3) Cask Type – finished in Oloroso Sherry butt for 7.5 years. Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No
Nose – Very reserved at first. Sweet. As it was coming to a more normal room temperature sitting beside me on the table, I could swear I could smell apples and honey. Rubbing a bit on my skin, the aroma reminded of of Dark Milk Chocolate with fondant, similar to those Fry’s bars you used to get. Back to the glass and I get the sherry notes appearing. Raisins, figs, dark cherries. A hint of dusty leather and beeswax.
Palate – medium to full body, syrupy but not too sweet. Turns astringent and slightly woody. Plums, figs, expresso, nutmeg. Slightly dusty again. Still no real burn yet, Dark chocolate orange. Gets more spicy on repeated sips, ginger and black pepper. Adding water made the mouthfeel turn buttery, and for me accentuated the sulphur note that I initially got in the finish giving a burnt rubber taste. But left to breathe for another 15 mins, this turned into a sweet drop, with the darker fruit gums getting added into the above mix. The astringency gets minimised; I can’t believe how sweet this turned.
Finish – The whisky develops into more spicy and astringent notes, becoming tannic and reveals a hint of sulphur but not in a too unpleasant way. The fruit is still there, but there is a more prominent sharpness to it, like passion fruit. I have a slight off note similar to a corked wine, leading to a slightly mineral / metallic combination right at the end. After adding the water and waiting, the increased sweetness left me with a long, almost candy sweet finish, reminding me of sugared almonds. The metallic and mineral notes almost vanished, with fruity notes replacing them. A surprise finish for a dram initially that I wasn’t enjoying as much as I thought I should be.
You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
There’s another music tie to my blog which any Joni Mitchell fan should recognise. It occurs to me that this is probably the very last dram from that bottle, and could very well be the last Glenugie I will ever taste. I would imagine that there can’t be a lot of stock left, if any. Even if there is, the chances of me being able to afford it are minimal. Who would have thought that one day Glenugie would close never to reopen? I remember childhood trips to Peterhead seeing the old distillery on the way past then bit by bit they knocked it down so that the land could serve another purpose for the offshore industry. In a paraphrase again from the same Joni Mitchell song, ‘paradise was paved’ and now is lost.
The fall of One-Up could be a tale for people in whisky to take notice of. Both have suffered (or could suffer) in part due to events outwith their control. For One-Up it was the loss of their market thanks to online streaming and downloads, negating the need for people to own a physical product. While the whisky industry doesn’t have that same issue while it’s in boom times, I feel that the industry has some serious underlying health issues that could cause problems.
The UK economy is not in the best of health either, but some of this is down to governmental ideology and incompetence, but also one has to look at the cutbacks at Goldman Sachs (here and here), Morgan Stanley (here), Barclays, Morgan Stanley and Citibank (here) as well as the warnings from the World Bank (here and here) that all is far from well in the global economy. If I was a luxury goods manufacturer then I’d be concerned, and let’s face it, whisky is such a thing. And there are signs that alcohol consumption hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, indicating that globally the consumer markets aren’t going the way the producers may wish – see this link – Alcohol sales lower than pre-pandemic level in Europe
I’ve been speaking of the possibility of recession for a while now, more so since the global economy has been distorted by the COVID pandemic, and Europe has been affected by the Ukraine war, These sort of events aren’t predictable, but this is also a good reason for why unrestricted growth of an industry isn’t always a good idea, yet this is what is happening within the collective whisky industry now. Many distilleries are going flat out to make up stocks, with the past decade of expansion to existing sites such as Macallan, Glenfiddich and Glenlivet just to name three. There are a wealth of new distilleries over the past 10 years with many more yet to start selling a product. If there is to be a recession, have the distilleries yet to start missed the boat? Could be a disaster for those depending on selling 3 year old spirit, especially if nobody has the money to pay some of the adventurous prices some think is an appropriate charge for bare minimum aged spirit.
And this is the trouble with unrestricted and untempered growth; nobody is looking to the downsides. So far there is no sign that consumers are slowing down, but these things can happen suddenly, just like the effects of natural disaster. Producers have to be able to predict trends of what will be popular in 10-20 years time when the spirit matures, and that my friends is near on impossible to do. It’s like driving down a dark country lane at full speed, and suddenly switching off your headlights. You have an idea of the way ahead, but realistically you have no true idea of what is coming, and there could be a crash. In the event of that situation, one should have thoughts and prayers for those investing in casks. Should there be a change in customer demand resulting in a downturn in demand for matured whisky, then what about those privately owned casks? Who is going to pay a premium for a cask that there isn’t a demand for? Especially if everybody is trying to sell their “Glen Investment” casks at the same time, when many may mature at the same time? Could be sad times for those who let brokers overcharge them in the first place.
The health of the industry in my opinion is developing another sickness, and that of premiumisation. We’ve seen prices go up with the cost of inflation, but not all increases are so driven in my opinion. Talisker 18 doubled in price, Lagavulin 16 took a price lurch in the wrong direction. Premium whisky is going to place the whisky enthusiast drinker into narrowing price points they don’t want to be in, with more aged whiskies being less affordable. So while we have a booming production rate now, we could still effectively end up with less choice, and falling demand in one sector as many more become reluctant to push past the £100 barrier for a bottle.
Twitter user @whiskyresource has ran a poll for 24 hrs to get an idea of how enthusiasts see the future of whisky and it doesn’t paint that rosy a picture. Judge for yourself. NAS whisky is a backwards step that many enthusiasts reject. We’ve been pushing for years to gain more transparency, as an age statement gives us some sort of quantifiable quality. While it means we aren’t guaranteed of quality, we’ll get an idea that we aren’t paying through the nose for the youngest possible spirit that NAS bottlings can hide.
In the second poll, the next question is whether or not people are reconsidering their comfort zones for buying whisky. And it seems many are. I’ve heard stories that some drinkers are rejecting the primary market and using auctions for purchasing core bottles rather than retailers. Not only can this be a lot cheaper when buying bottles still easily available, producers and retailers should remember that this doesn’t put the money in their pockets.
Make of this what you will. But I agree with the result. Bottles like Glendronach 18 are now off the cards and I’m grateful for the bottles in storage. Both polls aren’t conclusive but show what some of the online community think.
I don’t think things will be as bad as in the 1980’s yet worryingly, many pubs are really struggling at the moment and it’s getting more regular to hear of breweries in the craft beer industry that have fallen victim to economic pressures. I’m hearing rumours that the gin boom is over too. And it’s due to get worse with the Bank Of England telling the BBC that “the UK is still likely to fall into a long, shallow depression.” This, coupled with staffing issues in many industries giving workers a good basis in pushing for higher wages will keep prices high and not necessarily helping inflation fall. But what if a predicted UK and global recession is deeper than predicted? It is not outside the realms of possibility we’ll see distilleries close, even if only temporarily. What if the war in the Ukraine affects the global economy negatively again? This is a risk that may be very real, and out of control of the whisky producers.
While I don’t mean to preach that the end of the world is coming for the whisky industry, which has been cyclic for most of its existence, the truth of what goes up must eventually come down still exists. Will it be the higher the climb the greater the fall? Make the most of what we have. Value the good whiskies. People finding how good the likes of Imperial, Glenugie, Convalmore and others can be are now faced with limited stock or non-existent stock, with what is available already being in bottles. Enjoying quality whisky now could be key to our experiences as affordable aged whisky becomes out of reach for us. Indeed, this Glenugie is already out of my drinking comfort zone, but something more relevant is that Glendronach 18 was under £80 and now, easily £105. Once a staple, now a luxury to many more people.
It’s little wonder I would find concerning when I read this latest article from the Herald Scotland where a Borders Farmer is looking to find funding to the tune of £53 million pounds to fund a brand new grain distillery. The article mentions the fact fianancial recession, the aim of premiumisation, and supplying grain neutral spirit for gin. I read it in disbelief as I somewhat believe he’s missed the boat totally. I hope it works out for him, but the timing doesn’t seem to be on his side in my opinion. The other side of the story though is that speaking to someone with more insight into the industry than I have is that this plant could well be needed if Diageo pull the plug on supplying grain whisky to other blenders. Still, a brave decision to have to make when hedging your bets.
A fitting thought to attach as the conclusions from the tasting could be thus – now that the whisky is gone, the long sweet taste is reminding me of a time gone by as a child. Indeed, I still was one when Glenugie closed. My younger brother was born in the year this dram was distilled. Nobody had an inkling what was to be round the corner for the distillery or the industry. Perhaps this is where we find ourselves again now?
I’d be a fool in failing to acknowledge any potential upsides – the main one being that my opinion maybe completely wrong, and that we’ve really never had it so good and will continue to do so. Should interest rates not continue to climb to control inflation, and energy prices drop significantly, disaster will be averted. In the rhythmic ups and downs of the industry, probability means I’ll be right to some degree eventually, but I suspect it’s closer than many may want to think. If it comes to pass that the whisky enthusiasts have to endure limited choice due to price increases or lack of availability, then perhaps now was a good time to have my Glenugie, while listening to some music bought from One-Up and thinking about how good things used to be.
Christmas. Done and dusted for another year and good riddance to it all. I really cannot be doing with all the hustle and bustle of people getting ready for some festival that pretty much most people don’t seem to believe in and spending money that they may not be truly able to afford to waste.
The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome during 336AD, which is quite fitting, for the gluttony that traditionally takes place at this time of year wouldn’t be out of place in a Roman orgy. Perhaps nothing much has changed after all? I had decided that this year we’d just treat our child and keep everything else low key. Being a good Aberdonian, I wasn’t really wanting to waste cash on anything that wasn’t necessary, though I’d caved in a bit when it came to the budget for Brussels Sprouts, Pigs in Blankets and crisp based snacks. The wife intimated that she wasn’t really looking for much for Christmas (or she gave me that impression, which was to be my defence if needed) and didn’t look that disappointed when that’s exactly what she got. Well, sort of; more about that at the end.
One of the things I dislike most about the festive season is being asked what do I want as a gift? I let it be known that I’d be happy with getting very little, but my wife wasn’t going to let me away with that so easily. As I tend to buy what I want when I need it, I couldn’t really say that I needed a new power tool. I’m pretty much fashion unconscious, so the offer of new clothing wasn’t taken up. My favourite designer is F&F and I only wear clothes because we have to in public. It gets pretty Baltic in this part of Scotland for most of the year, so clothes are a good idea for more than legal reasons. I sort of knew I was heading for the present that most whisky geeks may detest – Supermarket Whisky.
I’m not that much of a whisky fascist, as there are sometimes a few bottles of whisky in a supermarket that may be acceptable, but the problem is that my dearest knows next to nothing about whisky, and shows little or no interest in reading my blog so had no idea what I’d like. I’d instantly start to feel guilty about asking for something like Talisker 18 while my wife is currently taking time out of her career to look after our child. There was a slight glimmer of hope when she went shopping in Inverness just before Santa day, as she was wanting to go into Leakeys Bookstore – just up the street from wine and spirits retailer Wood Winters. The command that was issued to the effect that I was banned from entering her dressing room once she came home from that trip meant the chances were even higher of something decent. But I was deceiving myself.
I’m no stranger to a supermarket whisky gift. Previous presents have been Johnnie Walker Red, Laphroaig Select, Cardhu Gold, Glen Keith, Glen Moray Classic. None of these I’d say are bad whiskies, but definitely not anything I’d purchase myself. There was a wee bit of worry that I may end up with a full size Jura Journey, which given it took me over 5 years to finish a half sized bottle that ended up being poured down the sink filled me with dread. Even if it was a whisky from a specialist retailer, what would she get me? At best I was looking at a Macallan or Glenmorangie, which aren’t to be sniffed at, but not that exciting either. I started to mull over the contemplation that the word “Gift” is also the German word for poison, and wondered if the person who entered that into their lexicon had received supermarket whisky as part of a Christmas present. The regret from not asking for something from the Master Of Malt site was growing. I knew all my contemporaries on social media will be parading the fantastic whiskies that I’d love to try and didn’t want the feeling of pity when they learnt I got something so uninteresting as supermarket whisky.
Come the big day and I was right. It was supermarket whisky. However it was a complete surprise, as I hadn’t had it before and it turns out that my wife had put a bit of thought into it. My gift was a bottle of Smokehead. Not the basic one at 43% but the 40% even more basic version. Probably loaded with colour, chill filtered and as thin as water. I was going to find out that my misconceptions were misplaced.
Smokehead – NAS
Region – Islay Age – NAS Strength – 40% abv Colour – Cherry Oloroso sherry (1.2) Cask Type – Not stated. Colouring – Not Stated but likely Chill Filtered –Not stated but most likely. Nose – Sweet. Strawberry fondant cream, petrol, salty smoke, a hint of TCP, vegetal note of silage. Palate – sweet arrival with no obvious kick. Banana, ginger, malt, salt, smoked bacon, vegetal, liquorice. There is an oily mouthfeel which while light is surprising for such a low abv. A mineral note is present in the later part of the palate. Finish – Spicy but short finish. Ginger and nutmeg, mineral taste, coupled with smoke and a light TCP. Similar to Laphroaig, seaweed, oak and a hint of char.
You’d be justified in saying that I am a whisky snob; anything on a supermarket shelf just doesn’t get me excited unless heavily discounted, and even then there are limits. But this one was a bit of an eye opener. I don’t mean to sound so surprised but I enjoyed it. Complex – it wasn’t, but what grabbed me was the mouthfeel. It was more oily than expected, the smoke and peat was well controlled in such a way it was a pleasure to drink neat. There was a sweetness to it that persuades me that a Sherry cask may be in the mix somewhere. While I have had a lot better whisky than this, it was well balanced and pleasurable to drink while watching a Christmas movie. I may have some cheese and crackers with it when I watch my next Christmas movie. Scotty’s cheese box in the fridge is well stocked with smokey delights.
My wife’s thought process was impressive, remembering that we’d both visited Talisker distillery and she knew I preferred that smokey whisky to the Dalwhinnie later on in the trip. While she had no idea how smokey Smokehead would be, she thought it a safe bet. And it was genius idea, as the chances of me having a supermarket whisky were to be frank, low. While I would have maybe preferred to receive a Talisker 10, that is based on my perception of quality and consistency. But the Smokehead was no slouch, despite it lacking in the usual geek credentials of ABV, age statement, NC and NCF.
It is so easy to dismiss whisky that resides on a supermarket shelf, but we need to remember one or two things that will keep us grounded. Firstly, not everybody has the same whisky budget. Some might want something cheap and cheerful. Some may want a bit of variety, some may just want something a little different but don’t want to break the bank trying something they may not like. While we are not likely to find whisky geek banger whisky in Tesco, we can get something that is palatable at a decent price. Crucially, it could be someone experimenting with whisky who doesn’t want to spaff £75 up the wall on some thing they don’t like. We’ve all been there or known somebody that has.
Mouthfeel was good. More oily than you might expect, giving a feeling of quality. While it is obvious the this spirit has seen a bit of chill filtering, there is still some thing left to give a hint as to what a cask strength one would be like. Unfortunately the standard release is only 43%. No massive spirit burn, although there was a little on the finish. I’ve no idea what distillery it is sourced from. Common belief is that it’s Caol Ila or Lagavulin, but I felt it was less peaty and more smokey putting it into Laphroaig territory for me. Wherever it’s from, I’m not going to say it’s definitely that, but hats off to Ian Macleod Distillers, for it was a perfect dram to sit and sip without the attendant analysis of what I could and couldn’t taste, along with the distractions that such processes demand. Just get it down you and enjoy.
I’m not that jealous of those who got better drams than me for Christmas. I’ve enough whisky in the house and had already had potential Christmas disappointment averted by a delivery of two Murray McDavids from Aberdeen Whisky Shop, though I’ve not felt the need to crack them open in lieu of my supermarket whisky. As we now move past 2022 and into 2023, it’s time to maybe forget such snobbery about supermarket whisky. After all, I’ve got a whisky which some people could pay ten times that amount for other whiskies and not have a much different experience with. Who’s the mug? Obviously there will be stinkers on the shelf, but a wise whisky drinker will know what they are. Just because they have 46% and and age statement means nothing; besides it’s all subjective anyway.
Lastly, just in case my wife does actually read my articles, I’d like to say thanks for your present – I’m really enjoying it. Hope you liked your ironing board cover.
As we approach the New Year, memories come back of the years past, of preparing your house for the Hogmanay to come. The lazy Susan would be loaded with peanuts and crisps, the cocktail sticks would be loaded with small pickled onions, cheese, pineapple chunks and perhaps cubed ham. As kids we’d be sent to bed early evening to get ready for being awake late at night. The cans of MacEwans Export and Tennents (with the swimsuited ladies) would be loaded into the fridge and your mum would be frantically baking, so all she would need to do was throw some frozen sausage rolls into the oven when the moment required it.
The next day usually consisted of a visit to relatives, with the parent the least hungover elected to drive to meet your aunties and uncles, and endure more drinking while you were landed with at best coke and crisps. If you were lucky, the Advocaat and lemonade was shared. Not that it is advisable nowadays to admit that you enjoyed drinking snowballs at New Year parties. Those who know, know.
And such was the Hogmanay process repeated throughout the 1970’s when I was a kid. In a quieter moment, somebody would get maudlin and perhaps come out with something what they think was far reaching and insightful.
Fit’s for ye winna ging past ye.
some twee bollocks.
For those who don’t speak Doric as a native language, that translates to “what is for you, won’t go past you.” It was a favourite of my Scottish Granny to say this, but to be honest I don’t think she had bottles of whisky on her mind when she was saying it. And saying to that to a person who is chasing a bottle that they are unlikely to get isn’t really that helpful, for that person is determined to get it, perhaps at any cost.
By this time the more sensible amongst is should know that whisky chasing isn’t a sport for the mentally healthy. In my view it can quietly be as destructive as many other habits when you consider the anguish of not getting what you want, the obsession in finding it, resulting in you spending a large part of your time online, trawling through retailer websites, obsessively looking at each auction or constantly leaving posts online via whisky social media to find out has anybody got the bottle you desire. Many will find this behaviour pretty disturbing and unhealthy, but I confess that this has been me.
I have a problem.
For those of you who know me or have met me personally, then you may beg to ask “what problem is it this time?” as it could be argued that I exhibit one or two behaviours that may often be classed as, to be succinct, ‘odd’. I personally don’t see anything wrong with having a few eccentricities, which is how I prefer to think of things. I mean, who doesn’t have or need a talking spanner? Let me introduce to you my mate Tommy Threequarters-Inch (to give him his Sunday name). Tommy was introduced to me upon a disastrous project in India this year that was supposed to be only 6 weeks long and became close to 4 times that.
The initial idea behind Tommy was to feign madness and therefore be removed from the vessel and spend some time at home with loved ones. It’s a risky manoeuvre, as you risked getting painted with the looney brush and never stepping on an offshore vessel again, but seeing as half the people I work with seem mental at times I was prepared to take the risk. And I was off the ship the very next day…
…only due to visa issues, but Tommy was always kept in the back pocket so to speak when things were getting a little too much. Not so much as to get off the boat, but to provide a little light relief amongst the shift. Those who work offshore will understand. It’s not so much madness but just a dark humour. If we didn’t have a laugh, we’d be bashing each other’s heads in. Turns out that actually happened recently.
Madness can be described as trying the same thing over and over again, still expecting a different result. While during my career I’ve seen plenty of others do this, on this one occasion when I’ve had the urge to keep on trying to find a Linkwood 19 from the Darkness range, I’ve done my initial searches and given up. I’ve had the odd look online to see if anything similar turns up and did look on a few auction sites, but as I mentioned in my review of the Auchroisk 9a couple of weeks ago, I knew I’d eventually find something similar. While I think I did with the Auchroisk, it what was to happen next sort of stunned me.
So, let me introduce you to a Scotty’s Drams follower called Billy. A fellow whisky drinker and offshore worker, Billy contacted me to let me know that he had found a Linkwood Darkness bottle I wanted in Germany and could through various means get this to me. This was in March of this year and of course I said that I would be happy to pay what he wanted for it. I did wonder if he’d give change for my first born, but I’d have happily paid in hens teeth – an easier denomination to count out.
Fast-forward to the end of June when both of our schedules met up, and I was able to travel to the east coast of Scotland to pick the bottle up. I could not believe that I had found a holy grail of whisky that I craved. And it didn’t cost me payment in offspring but some good hard cash. Billy and I had a great chat over a coffee, mostly about whisky and collecting. It was great to think that whisky is the thing that can bring likeminded people together. We don’t need to imbibe as much as possible. We don’t need to be drinking the most expensive whisky available. We just need to drink what we enjoy, and know why we are enjoying it.
Linkwood 19 y.o
Region – Speyside Age – 19 y.o Strength – 48.5% Colour – Tawny 1.4 Cask Type – Bourbon / PX Octave finish Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – toffee, coffee, hint of apricots, honey, ginger. Palate – rich toffee, instant coffee, raisins, sultanas, ginger bread and clove. Ginger snaps Finish – Sweet coffee, chocolate, cream, ginger. Medium – long finish.
Was it as good as when I first tasted it in London? No. It wasn’t.
That may come as a surprise, but don’t let me fool you, this was still very very good and I enjoyed it very much. While some people may see £120 for 50cl as expensive (it is), Master Of Malt are selling younger whisky in 50cl bottles for more than this. But it’s the way it makes you feel when you drink it that should be the deciding factor. When I first drunk this dram, it was on a night out and in a place that I was not familiar with, and if being honest, perhaps that coloured my judgement, as I was having a great time. But whilst I still found the same notes that I remembered from before, they weren’t as vivid as I prefer to romanticise about in my mind.
The common sense reaction is to remember that this had been a bar bottle that I first drank a nip from and my bottle hasn’t been open nearly as long. So this one will remain ungassed and we will see how it matures with a little bit of oxidation.
Or perhaps this is just my memory playing tricks on me, or it’s similar to taking statements from accident witnesses: – if you don’t take them quickly, it’s been proven that people often unconsciously embellish their testimony based on what they thought they saw, and other experiences are starting to colour the real version of events. But for me, what it does do is highlight the points I made before in my Auchroisk 9 review, where although I thought these things were very similar, they are in fact quite different if you compare tasting notes. Our memories can’t always be relied on, therefore it is often crazy to chase a bottle, especially the rarer or expensive when something else will give you a similar or cheaper ‘hit’. Only perhaps when we examine in fine detail will we find differences but at that point to be it stops being enjoyable and more of a chore to drink. Just get it down your throat and enjoy responsibly.
To prove a point, I had another dram of each and placed them side by side. While there were slight differences in colour, by tasting alone, I found the differences hard to pick out, yet when looking back at my notes, they are demonstrably not the same. A trick of the mind or memory?
It’s hard to say what it was, but it further reinforces my belief in that it is pointless wasting time, energy and money on chasing a whisky to drink based on what you have tasted before. You are always going to find something that gives you the warm and fuzzy feeling that another whisky has given you in the past. To chase it just because you haven’t had it or need it for your collection is also a form of madness.
But I’ve been there before. More than once as well. Why not join my club? Plenty of room on the helicopter that flies over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
It just so happens that despite my advice on chasing bottles has been put to one side. Jealousy got the better of me when I saw that someone on Twitter got 2 Mackmyra Grönt Te, a whisky I reviewed as part of my dabbling in world whiskies. I liked it, but as it had sold out by time I tasted my sample, I knew chasing that was pointless. That didn’t stop me looking.
Anyway, a quick Google found it for sale at CASC in Aberdeen. I ordered two and hoped for the best. These turned up on the 29th of December. One for opening and one for opening at a later date – maybe.
A lucky second happy ending for 2022.
And thanks to Billy for sourcing the Linkwood bottle. Legend.
Of all the spirit swaps I’ve done, this one was probably on track to be the most depressing one, entirely due to the weather though thankfully it had its high points, for I was delivering whisky for a fellow member of the social media whisky community that I hadn’t met yet. After all, isn’t whisky the reason we are all together?
It was certainly a mission of mercy. Aberdeen Whisky Shop had a shop purchase only of a Thompson Brothers release, and my fellow whisky enthusiast couldn’t get down from Inverness to Aberdeen to collect them. These were the Craigellachie and secret Orkney bottling. Fortunately I had business in Aberdeen and was able to collect. Due to work it was harder to deliver, but met a couple of months later in a supermarket car park on the outskirts of Inverness.
Such a dreich day you’ve never seen. On the way up the A9 over the Slochd pass and past Tomatin distillery, I can’t remember having seen rain come down quite as hard. As I drove I kept repeating to myself that it had to be better in Inverness. That thought was totally fruitless, as if anything it was worse. Despite setting a time to meet, I obviously turned up early as you can never predict the time it will take you to travel on that road. Sad fact is that there are too many people on the A9 that don’t drive anywhere near the speed limit, causing frustration on the single carriageway sections. At the other end of the spectrum are those who also drive nowhere near the speed limits but in the opposite direction, mimicking a world land speed record attempt and the world’s most hazardous overtaking manoeuvre all in one go. It’s no wonder that the A9 is pretty much the most dangerous road in Scotland, with around 11 people killed in this year on the stretch between Perth and Inverness, making slow and steady in the inclement weather the order of the day.
Yeah, hanging around a carpark with the rain beating down on the roof of my car, radio on listening to the weather reports of other areas getting it just as bad didn’t fill me with joy. I was starting to feel like a drug dealer and then I started to muse as to what street drug dealers do in the winter? It’s can be fairly brutal in the darker months of freezing rain, snow and ice. But before long, my contact turned up.
This is where being chatty and forgetful almost became my downfall. For not only did I stand for a while chatting in the rain, taking my chances with pneumonia, but also as my colleague walked away, he suddenly remembered that he hadn’t paid me for the whisky. Note to self: – don’t become a drug dealer, I’ll not make money.
I got some samples as a reward for picking up the bottles and one of them was this Inchgower, bottled by Murray McDavid for the Spirit of Speyside festival. My last review was for another Spirit of Speyside release that was bottled by Murray McDavid, the 9 year old Auchroisk. This sample just to look at didn’t give anything away due to the tinted plastic bottle, so my normal colour misconceptions didn’t kick in. The age misconception did not go missing in action though. While I know that age is not the only thing to determine how good a dram will be, I can’t say that I’m over enthusiastic about drams under 10 years old. Neither am I that enthusiastic about the only regular official bottle from Inchgower distillery, the 14 year old Flora and Fauna. While not bad, it’s hardly brilliant. Only one thing for it and that’s putting it in a glass and having a go.
Inchgower 5 y.o – Spirit Of Speyside 2022 (Murray McDavid)
Region – Speyside Age – 5 y.o Strength – 53.6% abv Colour – Auburn (1.5) Cask Type – Sherry Oloroso Hogshead Colouring – No Chill Filtered -No. Nose – Sweet and rich. Dark chocolate with raspberry – a Ruffle bar for those who know, orange peel, caramel, slight leather note. Palate – Sweet to start with but takes you on a wild ride which I wasn’t prepared for. This really needed water to open it up. Stewed plums, prunes, light peppery spice. Then mid palate the flavours start a riot similar to those in 1980’s Brixton or Toxteth. Sweet, bitter flavours. Tannins from the cask give a slightly bitter taste and a slight drying effect, but then there’s a hint of salty liquorice. Then burnt sugar, then buttery caramel and back to an oily sweetness, but the spice remains. Finish – coffee, chocolate taste, treacle toffees, molasses, ginger and spice which decreases slowly. Long finish.
I haven’t sworn on this blog yet and am not away to start now, but I’m sure my wife heard me say “Duck Me” when I tasted this. Yup, this was an absolute banger. Another great whisky that’s going to be hard to get, if ever but even if I manage to lay my hands on one, it won’t be remaining closed. It certainly speaks volumes why often independent bottlings really ramp up the value aspect compared to the official releases. This was far better than the Flora and Fauna by a country mile.
I’ve often doubted my palate due to regular long stints of alcoholic abstinence and sinus problems, but not this time. There were bags of things to taste here and they weren’t hiding away. They were bursting to get out and when they escaped, the result was a flavour riot on my tongue. All too soon the dram was finished and once again I’m left with slight regrets of a whisky I’ll never taste again. At least I’ll know to hang on in there; there will be something similar waiting for me to discover it in the future.
Thank you to my whisky brother for the generous samples – I look forward to trying the others. Hope you enjoy your bottles. Finally, thanks for remembering that you hadn’t paid me. That would have made the afternoon completely dreich.
Have you ever tasted a whisky, then realised that you’ll never get it again? I have, quite a few times, although the wise amongst us will know that while whiskies are pretty much unique, the chances of getting something very similar is quite high. Well, I had that moment last year when I was stuck in London for 10 days in September last year. I took the opportunity to meet a fellow whisky enthusiast in Milroys of Soho, and I had a great time, as any whisky enthusiast would in a specialist whisky bar. Of course I wrote a blog about it, but the great regret was one of the whiskies I had was one I’d likely never get again. A search of the internet the morning after made it clear that I’d be more likely to find a mouthful of hens teeth in a pile of unicorn turds than find this whisky. Therefore I’d have to find an alternative.
They say that time stands still for no man, and that’s precisely what happened. Before long we were into March 2022, and I had all but given up hope of finding this whisky unless I was fortunate at auction. In desolation I paid a visit to the Speyside Whisky Shop, where I was invited to smell a sample of a whisky and to guess what it was. And to my surprise, I smelt all the key notes of the whisky I was mourning. When I was informed that this was to be their bottling for the Spirit Of Speyside Festival in May, I immediately intimated that I would love to buy at least a bottle.
Fast forward to the end of May when I was finally able to purchase it, unusually for me I was straight into the bottle. Was it the same as the whisky I yearned for? No. But it was darned close. Having a wee bit more abv, a decade less maturation and a different sherry cask finish meant it would never be the same but it was enough to cheer me up enough to realise that I could probably now relax and end my search for the whisky I was never likely to find.
I’m quite comfortable in admitting that I probably don’t have the best of palates, especially due to sinus problems brought on by having my nose broken (also known as talking when I should have been listening), though I can taste enough and still I’m able to learn and educate my palate by tasting many whiskies like everybody else. It’s easy to observe that many people in the whisky orientated social media drink quite a spread of whisky, which will develop their palates too, but how well will it develop their memory?
Due to my employment patterns interrupting my enjoyment of whisky, coupled with the fact that once home I don’t want to spend every evening with alcohol when I do have time to drink results in the fact I may lack the practical tasting experience of others. However there are a handful of whiskies that I do remember the profiles pretty well, despite some of them only being sample size. I just can’t picture me remembering every single whisky I have ever tasted. While I might recall the general distillery profile, the exact taste I won’t. Hardly surprising, for I am the person who walks into a room then wonders why they went there in the first place. I joke that it’s not so much Alzheimer’s but more ‘auld timers’ that caused it. However, in spite of the variety of whiskies as I have managed over the years (mostly pre-fatherhood), I have to admit that I’m starting to see many as pretty much of a muchness, where only the truly standout whiskies for me stand a chance of being remembered. Am I alone in this?
Plenty of others are able to consume at will and search for the whisky-de-jour, but will they remember much more than the approximate profiles of those gone by in the past, other than an obvious distillery style? The restless cynic in me means that I personally doubt it. While the mind is a wonderful thing, I prefer to think unless it’s a dram they really identify with, in all honesty most people will only remember general profiles, unless they work in the industry and this have a vested interest in having such recall. That’s just my opinion, and of course everybody has a different whisky journey behind and before them. We can refer back to tasting notes, but I am of a mind that we can’t really always rely on them unless it’s a dram you have spent a lot of time with. Tasting notes can often represent that snapshot in time you had that bottle, which if you only got one or two, may not be a long time depending on how quickly you drank it. Our taste buds change over time too, so that whisky you tasted once then coveted could well be a disappointment if you have it again.
Food for thought? I’ll have probably forgotten this by time I publish this anyway, so don’t be afraid to remind me.
Anyway, this Auchroisk that was bottled for the Speyside Whisky Shop is my little aide-memoir to that early autumn evening in Soho.
Region – Speyside Age – 9 y.o Strength – 55.3% Colour – Russet Muscat (1.3) Cask Type – Oloroso Hogsheads Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Dark fruit. Dates, figs, toffee, dark chocolate, strawberry, vanilla. Palate – creamy mouthfeel, with a prominent toffee and coffee note. Develops into a sticky toffee pudding taste with sultana and dates. The spirit starts to make an appearance with peppery heat appearing. Finish – The peppery heat dissolves back into a spiced fruit loaf with a hint of nutmeg. Medium long finish.
A cracker of a whisky. Extremely enjoyable but unfortunately after a few glasses I have to concede that it just wasn’t the same as my memory remembered from last year. Close, but not close enough. The purchase price of £62-ish was good enough value for this dram.
Unfortunately you are unlikely to be able to buy this one, unless you are lucky to get one at auction, though I think I’m safe to assume that everybody that bought this bought it to consume. I managed to get two bottles and while I told myself one would be stored, I think I’ll be opening that one too. After all, the main takeaways from this article will be:-
1/Chasing whisky is part madness – there will always be another whisky which is close to what you seek.
2/ Does rare really matter? While there are some genuinely rare whiskies based on availability of stock, it seems that some whiskies are artificially made rare through the choices of the bottler to limit releases by only partially bottling a cask. If for example an IB releases a 12 year old “Glenbollox” finished in an Octave, then while it may only yield around 70 bottles, then there is still the rest of the Hogshead somewhere in the trade to be released with another finish. And unless it’s a unique cask and a rare vintage; it’s not really genuinely rare to the drinker – there will be other whiskies that taste similar that won’t have the same premiums, be they genuine or manufactured attached to them.
You’ll just have to find it.
And lastly, being totally contrary to my points above, did I really give up the search for that mythical whisky? No, not really. While I believe it is better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all, my OCD decided not to let go. After all, sometimes you never find something, but it finds you.
The dram I have sampled for you today was bought for a special occasion, but there never seemed to be a special time for it. While I was purchasing world whisky samples for my previous reviews, I saw this Speyburn and thought it would do to make up the numbers, though it just joined a long queue of sample swaps and other miniature bottles I thought I’d buy. One of my followers very generously gave me a Glenugie 32 year old old over two years ago and I’ve still to try it, but I’m wanting the perfect moment when I can sit and savour the dram rather than just gulp it and think “Oh well.”
It was by pure accident that this dram was opened on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. I’m no monarchist at all, preferring to hold an ambivalent view of them. However I’ve had respect for Queen Elizabeth, as she held standards from an era gone by, plus was often in Aberdeen for the annual trips to Balmoral. I also understand the feelings of many servicemen past and present who have sworn allegiance to the Crown to defend our country. I’ve not felt comfortable about those saying that people are venerating our monarch now are bootlickers, as would they rather give an oath to our politicians? One former leader has certainly been found wanting as has his immediate replacement. Plus, politicians are much more temporary than a monarch, only being there by the whims of the electorate.
However, I’m no republican either although I’ve found a wee sympathy for this cause. To see how much has been lavished on a state funeral when we have people struggling with energy bills, etcetera, it’s hard to argue against. But in the end you have to accept that Queen Elizabeth has had an admirable reign, and as she’s the only monarch I’ve known, I’ve little idea how things will move forward. With King Charles already being 73, I can foresee change again in my lifetime.
A very reflective time indeed.
And we turn to this Speyburn 18 year old. This distillery is owned by Inver House distilleries, in turn a subsidiary of InBev; a Thai corporation that also own the Old Pulteney, Balblair, An Cnoc and Balmenach distilleries. Speyburn was opened in 1897, the diamond jubilee year of Queen Victoria. Founded by John Hopkins, the distillery is nestled into a steep sided glen through which the Granty Burn flows. Interesting fact though is that the Ordinance Survey Maps show it to be the Broad Burn by time it reaches the distillery, although the Granty Burn is still part of the same watercourse, but further north towards Rothes. Due to the topography of the small glen that Speyburn sits in, the legendary Charles Doig had to build his distillery a bit taller. Often all you see of the distillery as you drive past on the A941 Elgin to Rothes road is the Doig ventilator poking up above the trees.
The other thing that goes past the distillery is the remains of the Speyside line from Elgin to Craigellachie. What is unusual is that Speyburn never had it’s own railway siding, unlike Glenlossie, Benromach, Longmorn and Coleburn. The only other distillery in the area that didn’t have a siding despite the railway going right past the buildings is Glen Elgin. This is confirmed by looking at historical maps. Rothes distilleries used the station goods yard. It wasn’t until 1950 that the distillery horse and cart were replaced by a tractor and trailer. Sometimes when driving on the A95 and A9 I wish that the Speyside line was still operating. When you consider that the majority of the distillery lorry traffic destined for any of the Speyside distilleries has to go on this route, thats a heavy load. Plus there’s few places to overtake.
Speyburn used pneumatic drum maltings until 1967, when these were removed in favour of bought in malt. It wasn’t until 1992 that DCL sold Speyburn to Inver House. At that time the only official release was the 12 year old Flora and Fauna, which as the deal included the stock, brought the production of that bottling to an abrupt end and is now probably the most expensive of all the 26 Flora and Fauna range. A whisky that used to cost less than £35 now costs anywhere between £2000 – £3000 at auction plus the usual fees. I own a couple of them, but the problem is that the whisky in the bottle is never going to match the price tag, so they are expensive paper weights. If you want to taste a contemporary Speyburn, then you have to either find an independent bottling or try the 10 year old in the core range, which is at 40%. I’ve reviewed this before and found it acceptable given its often sub £30 price, the only other core range that is cheaper is the NAS Bradan Orach, but that’s never really stood out to me.
If you want to try Speyburn as an enthusiast, your only real options in my opinion is to get one of the many tempting travel retail options, where even the 10 year old is bottled at 46% or you can get the 15 or 18 year old. In my last review of Speyburn I suggested that while the 10 year old core range was ok, I think I’d be buying a full size bottle of the 15 year old. That never happened as I detailed above. I did end up buying a 2004 13 year old Shinanoya cask from auction, but this was an accident, as I was actually meaning to bid on the 25 year old, but ended up bidding and winning a bottle which was EU based. I guess having an EU based mother in law has its advantages all of a sudden.
I suppose that I’d best get around to tasting.
Region – Speyside Age – 18 y.o Strength – 46% abv Colour – Russet Muscat (1.3) Cask Type – Bourbon / Sherry Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Wine Gums, toffee, strawberries, honey, Palate – not a very aggressive introduction, rich mouth feel. Sweet, raisins, slight oak, touch of malt, cocoa powder. Strawberry, plum, cinnamon with a hint of ginger. Finish – dried fruit, smoky malt, wood spices.
This dram is spot on. It wasn’t very complex but there was a little bit there, which was opened up with a drop or two of water. It was an easy dram to drink, and you could feel that this one may go down the throat a little bit too easily. But here is the reason I really think this is spot on – the price. While there maybe better 18 year olds to had, you have to have a fairly large wallet to afford them. We’re looking at you Talisker – £185 is scandalous, as this could in theory buy 2 bottles of Speyburn 18 year old and a bottle of Bradan Orach. The cheapest I have seen the 18 year old online was £74.95, but Master of Malt or TWE have it for a smidge under £79. Amazon were one of the more expensive, at £82, but this is still good value for an 18 year old dram. Inver House do produce good whisky at reasonable prices, one other example has to be its other Speyside core range from An Cnoc.
This can easily be recommended, and if I am wrong, you can take solace that you haven’t broken the bank to break your heart.
Always a bridesmaid but never a bride. That’s the phrase that continually comes to mind when I think about Tamnavulin. It always seems to have a presence on any supermarket shelf, and never ever near the more premier brands. I’m a bit wary of Whyte and Mackay whiskies, as I can never understand their seeming obsession with chill filtering and adding colour, especially to Dalmore. I’ve never really connected to Fettercairn yet and the less said about Jura the better. I have thankfully connected to Invergordon, but normally just the independent bottlings. So that leaves the shelf queen of Tamnavulin. One of those whiskies that always seems to be available for £20 at the Co-op. As this price range often includes the Glen Keith NAS Distillery edition, you’ll understand why I give it a miss.
The Sherry cask edition appeared on Tesco shelves for £45 but it seemed to be a little more than I wanted to pay for a litre of whisky I may not like. But when it made a drop down to £30 it was a no-brainer to try. I did buy a bottle, but was reticent about opening it, so put it in the drinking pile in storage and then bought the sample from drinks by the dram.
According to the information on the Tamnavulin website, this has been matured initially in American Oak, which I am going to assume is Bourbon, and finished in a range of three sherry casks. I’m going presume that will probably be PX, Oloroso and I’ll assume another oxidatively matured sherry such as Amontillado, but no further details are given.
The Tamnavulin distillery opened its doors in 1966, so it is a relative newcomer to Speyside. It is one of three distilleries in Glenlivet, with Glenlivet being the most northerly one, Tamnavulin being the middle one, in the hamlet of Tomnavuilin on the B9008 Ballindalloch to Tomintoul road. The most southerly distillery in Glenlivet is Braeval, which is the highest distillery in Scotland according to my GPS. The whole area is quite remote and I’d hate to live up there in winter, but it’s easy to see why Glenlivet was so popular with illicit distillers.
Being on the west river bank of the River Livet, at this point the Tamnavulin distillery just sneaks into the Cairngorm National Park boundary. This distillery takes its name from the Scots Gaelic meaning ‘Mill on the hill’. There happens to be an old carding mill within the distillery grounds which is where local shepherds would take fleeces to be made into wool.
Rather than spinning out a story, let’s take a look at the whisky.
Tamnavulin Sherry Cask
Region -Speyside Age – NAS Strength – 40% ABV Colour – Deep Copper (1.0) Cask Type – Sherry Colouring – Yes Chill Filtered – Yes Nose – a sharp acidic note which I am assuming to be E150, honey, vanilla, red apple, dried fruit, brown sugar, sherry notes, slight maltiness Palate – Slightly oily mouthfeel but thin. Cadbury Caramels – caramel and milk chocolate, blackberry jam. Slight nuttiness Finish – medium. Chocolate, sweet, slight wood spice, creamy.
There is nothing better than being proved wrong. I thought I was potentially up for a stinker of a whisky and I was mistaken. Premium this is not, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not complex in any way, but drunk neat this to my mind is a well balanced whisky. No sharp spices or alcohol burn. I mostly got fruit, caramel and chocolate from the smell and flavour notes.
In my humble opinion, £45 for a litre may seem to some as expensive but perhaps not. While I’m normally unlikely to pay that for supermarket whisky at NAS, at £30 this has to be a very good value bottle. I’ll probably buy another and open it, leaving one in store for later on as it would be something I’d want to drink again in the future.
My only complaint would be for Whyte and Mackay to stop chill filtering and colouring this whisky. I’m not a snob and I do enjoy whiskies that have been filtered and coloured, but I think it would be better without. 40% seems to be fine for what it is, I found the lack of burn was part of what made this experience much more enjoyable, so the flavours came through more strongly. For enthusiasts this may not the best whisky in the world, but enough of a sherried whisky experience without the sherry overpowering everything else, and would be a good whisky for a beginner to try. It certainly has my favour over the Aberlour 12 which at a similar price proved to be disappointing.
I’d say this whisky can represent value even at £45 for a litre. If you see it offered for less, snap it up. A 70cl bottle is currently being sold on Master Of Malt for £32.95 at time of writing and at Tesco £40 for a litre. At these prices you cannot go wrong. However I encourage you to seek this whisky out at your independent spirit specialist, as the big boys don’t really need your money.
No, it’s not that wonderful time. Hopefully you don’t have Andy Williams singing that seasonal song burying itself into your brain as a particularly vicious ear worm. By time I’m likely to publish this article, we’ll be well into the Christmas shopping frenzy. But even in September when this article had its genesis, the Christmas cards are already in the shops and adverts for booking the works festive night out are all over local and social media. It’s just inescapable and it really boils my carrots when we have still to mark Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night. We’ll soon meet that point on a virtual retail Venn Diagram calendar when items for all three celebrations are on the shop floor. For me, what should be a special time of year for those who celebrate the birth of sweet baby Jesus, the failed Government assassin or even Freddie Krueger, the commercialism has just taken the shine off of things.
The whisky world isn’t immune from annual events. Whether it’s waiting for the latest whisky book from Ingvar Ronde or Jim Murray, your favourite whisky festivals or a whisky holiday, there is always something to perk our heads up like the whisky loving meerkats we are. There was one whisky event that I used to look forward to, but now I’ve become a bit jaded about them and it seems to have lost that specialness. You may have guessed that I’m talking about the Diageo Special Releases. For the past 10 years I’ve always kept an eye out for the announcement of what is getting released, to see if there is a particularly enticing bottle, especially from one of their closed distilleries. Of course I was never going to be in the market for the Port Ellen or Brora, but I’ve always kept my eyes open for a Convalmore, Pittyvaich or even a sneaky wee Benrinnes should one arise; alas for me pickings over the past 5 years have been pretty disappointing.
It hasn’t just been the selection of whiskies that have been included within the special release portfolio that has disappointed. I’m going to express a personal opinion but it’s the artwork and labelling that have started to drive me away. In recent years special releases have started to have a theme associated with them, most notably in the artwork, with the 2018 having apparently the last individual labelling style on the bottle, with 2019 and 2020 having a wildlife theme for most of them, almost like a parody of the Flora and Fauna bottlings, but still tasteful. Then came 2021, and for me things started to unravel. The theme of Legends Untold and the artwork from what may be a Dungeons and Dragons illustration makes me think that they aren’t trying to sell that whisky to the likes of me – they are aiming for a completely different kind of market.
The 2022 Special Releases have been termed ‘Elusive Expressions’ and this time they’ve decided to go full Tonto with the artwork. My attention was first brought to this in a Nickolls & Perks promotional e-mail, and it was this that really put me off looking any further. I hadn’t even noticed the prices until they were pointed out and at this point I had to just stop and ask – is this really worth it? What makes these special? Was I just being grumpy for the sake of it, or did other people feel the same?
You have to remember that besides being grumpy, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. A whisky Calvinist of sorts, where any distraction from the liquid is seen as unnecessary, distasteful thing to be avoided, in similar way to how the original Calvinists thought music, dancing and fun was unholy in church. I like plain, understated labels or those labels that hark back to a previous era, as we all know that some things were actually better in the past. This may explain part of my love for Flora and Fauna bottles or the Gordon and Macphail distillery label whiskies. Of all the special releases, the 2005, 2013 and 2017 Convalmore offerings were for me a pinnacle of subtlety, evoking an era long past and memories of a silent and unlike Brora and Port Ellen, never likely to return to production.
In his recently released book, whisky author Dave Broom writes in the introduction about how whisky can be seen as a cultural product, and a way of “looking at a country: it’s history, people, stories and thinking.” This is something already mentioned by David Hayman when he presented the BBC Scotland three part documentary entitled Scotch! The Story of Whisky. He tells the story of how Scotch is so ingrained with the culture and identity of the country. So when we look to the special releases, for me the design evokes nothing of Scotland, except some lurid artwork and a fantasy story on the back. Of course, Scotland is a modern country and we shouldn’t be adverse from being colourful and fanciful, but when you know these twee stories are the whims of a marketing team, then the lustre dims somewhat. Some of us have progressed beyond the crayon eating stage.
Was I on my own? I decided to run a small poll on social media to find out if I was on my own with my thoughts.
Don’t let the small sample size fool you. The direction of flow was pretty much one way, with 90% of people expressing what might be seen as a negative outlook, or at the very least find that the special releases not special anymore. 150 people described them as a con. Whether this meant that they were a rip off for the money or just pulling the wool over our eyes as to how special they are, I’ll never know. I’m also surprised that 6 people class the Special Releases as good value. Perhaps they are, but I’m not so sure. While I can understand why people think they are a con, that’s not what I think. You can’t tell without drinking them and I’m not prepared to buy the set, though I will admit that I think they just aren’t special any more.
Let me tell you why I feel this way.
Firstly, let’s look at what is truly important, and that is the liquid itself. I have no doubt that these whiskies are all good, solid whiskies. Of course you may not enjoy every single one, but all of these whiskies are cask strength, non chill filtered and as far as I can see there’s nothing stated about natural colour, so we’ll have to assume there has been some added. Mind you, even Meatloaf thought 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, and there was nothing wrong with Meatloaf. Each one of these should be a great whisky, and I’ve heard that some of them are quite tasty, enough to get me thinking that I may spring for a bottle. But there’s more elephants in the room than at PT Barnum’s circus when we turn the attention to the prices, which for a drinker is possibly the second most important thing, if not the most.
Perhaps I have got this wrong. Maybe the price should be looked at first to then decide if you can afford to spring for a bottle, but for me I decide whether I may like it first, then look at the price. And to me, while some prices seem to have kept pace with inflation, plus bearing in mind that there has been a massive increase in costs recently, I don’t find the prices outrageous, but lets get this straight now – they are adventurous at best. While they don’t have the four figure price tags of Port Ellen, Brora and latterly Convalmore, these are certainly within the reach of more people, but there are still a few that have prices that raise a few eyebrows.
If you choose to pay £275 of your hard earned pounds for grain whisky that is only 26 years old (Cameronbridge) then I would suggest that the special thing about that whisky is when you drink it, you’ll know it to be an expensive drink (read: over priced). Similarly for the Mortlach NAS. £250 for what could be a spirit with an average age of 12 years is maybe justifiable in the eyes of the producer, as they know the make up of the vatting, but for the consumer, this price point is a lot to take a punt on. Let the fact that Diageo released a 30 y.o Mortlach for £3700 in August 2022 sink in before you consider purchasing an NAS.
Have we come to the point where special now ceases to mean what it was truly meant to? I think we have come to misuse this word in a similar way to the whisky industry also uses the word ‘rare’ and ‘limited’. While the Cameronbridge makes its first appearance in the Special Release line up, the other selections have appeared more than once. Yes, they may be a rarely seen expression, but does this alone make them special when so many of their contemporaries are doing the same thing? Will it remain unique if a similar release is made in a few years time? That I can’t say, but the cynic in me feels these aren’t unique at all.
Let’s think back to the days of the mid 90’s, for that was when a forerunner to Diageo, United Distillers, released the Rare Malts series. This was a step up from the Flora & Fauna, and was a truly limited release, as the bottles were usually numbered, but not always.
Looking on the internet. It doesn’t take long to find some special releases from 5 years ago still on the primary market. There is a cask strength Dalwhinnie 30 y.o from the 2020 releases on the Master of Malt site for £574.86 – the initial RRP was £550. However I have a 25 year old cask strength Dalwhinnie that I bought from the distillery for £180 a few years earlier at nearly a third of the price. While it seems that I am comparing apples and carrots, it gets easy to see why unless you know why they are priced the way they are, the selling prices seem to be that bit more arbitrary.
While the average prices of the special release sets have come down, they are still expensive for what they are, and if you see 2017 releases still on primary retail (Collectivum XXVIII £150) perhaps you’ve misjudged things a bit. Something summed up by another whisky social media user. Link here to see thread for context.
Get the price wrong and it will sit on the shelf. However, its worth remembering that Diageo or any other large whisky producer don’t really worry. They can wait.
Where have the big priced bottles gone?
As I outlined earlier, I anticipated the Special Releases for the ability to obtain older whisky from distilleries that have fallen silent, Convalmore and Pittyvaich in particular. But now with Brora back into production and Port Ellen soon to follow, plus rumours are that there isn’t a lot of Convalmore left, this leaves the collection lacking in the rarer big guns. Some of these are now are sold in a range called Prima and Ultima. It’s an 8 bottle set which costs £36500, but this has put older whisky well outwith the range of many common enthusiasts. You can go to the web page Diageo uses for the premium whiskies and buy separately, but no price is given for single bottlings. I have seen a bottle of Convalmore 36 from 1984 in the Prima and Ultima range being sold for just over £2000, on the Justerini and Brooks website, it is something that is perhaps beyond many of us, unless we have deep pockets and few responsibilities and even less common sense.
While starting to come to a conclusion, a DM conversation that I had with a well known face in the whisky world about casks suggested that there are three types of people in the cask investment world. This caused me to smile as I can see parallels in the bottled whisky market. Whether you are a seasoned pro with the right connections, knowledge and a bit of cash behind you, or the dabbler who has an idea, but perhaps not the cash, full knowledge or the connections, or lastly the idiot – money to spend and has bought into hype. Perhaps this is how brands like Diageo see their consumers – those with the cash to buy the premium and truly rare, those who can make do with the special releases, or those who choose to buy a full set of Game Of Thrones whisky who expect to make their fortunes because of the hype. I see the Diageo special releases becoming more hyped and no obvious uniqueness about them. Regardless if I have misjudged this, for me the shine has fully rubbed off and I don’t really see that these bottlings can be seen as anything special in the face of so much other good and cheaper whisky. It is a marketing exercise and nothing more; there will be more Lagavulin or Cardhu etc, what you are doing is solely buying a brand, pretty much like buying a new car from the same dealer every 5 yrs or so, and if you want something much rarer like a Bentley, then you need to dig deep into the wallet.
With a twist in the tail, I have to admit, my interest was piqued at the 10 year old Oban. I visited the distillery in 2019 and enjoyed the cask strength 9 year old they gave us as a part of the tour, much more than the mundane 14 yr. old. In an effort to see if there really was a specialness in the release, I decided to take a chance to see if I could rekindle memories of that glorious sample.
Taste Review 142 – Oban 10 Special Release 2022.
Region – Highland Age – 10 y.o Strength – 57.1% abv Colour – Amber (0.7) Cask Type – Bourbon / Sherry / Amontillado Colouring – Not stated Chill Filtered – No Nose – Sweet. Blackberry, cherries, dark chocolate, salt air, seaweed, hint of black pepper and smoke. Palate – Instantly salty, if you can’t taste the maritime notes I’ll be surprised. Heavy cream sort of mouthfeel, yet no big spirit kick which is surprising given the strength. I found the salt became sweet with a hint of plums, oranges, and turned again with a peppery note going into the finish. Finish – medium length finish where the heat and spicy notes build. The oak starts to express itself with a slightly dry, tannic note but there is continued sweetness along with a hint of smoke coming out. The heat changes from a peppery heat to one with a hint of chilli as it slips down the throat, but it still doesn’t really have a need for water to calm it. Adding water gave me a burst of mint in the finish.
When all said and done, this is a nice dram. There’s plenty there to engage a whisky drinker with. I would say that if you like coastal drams, then this one should be considered. Was it as good as the 9 y.o I had at the distillery in 2019? I can’t say, as it is too long ago to make accurate comparisons as my memory isn’t that good. However I enjoyed it a lot. But was this dram special?
No It wasn’t.
I’m beginning to see why so many people think the Special Releases are a con. What I have tasted is no different to what an independent bottler would turn out, probably at a much lower price. This would appear only to be special as Diageo haven’t used these barrels for blending fodder, nor have they diluted them for core bottles or Distiller Editions. Should we all sit up like meerkats just because something is ‘special’ due to the way a distillery holds onto its casks? I could quite easily buy two independently bottled whiskies that are just as good for the same money. And two cask strength bottlings wouldn’t cost not much more.
The only people who would see these as being really special are Diageo themselves, as it is they who control the release of casks to the brokers and independent bottlers. Oban isn’t a common independently bottled whisky. But when there is only a description of being ‘limited release’ then there could be multiples of thousands released or more, and for me knowledge that my be the case takes the sheen off of the specialness. Bit like the knowledge Macallan Folio 5 was released not with 2000 bottles, but around 20,000
The last point is the price. Over £100 for a 10 year old whisky is pricey. Are we seeing the insidious creep of premiumisation here too? An unusual release shouldn’t be the excuse for jacking the prices up, as you may find the market you are aiming for will reject it, and those who do buy in will eventually move onto something else when the next fad comes along.
Despite being described by one whisky journalist on their Instagram as “good value”, I’d contend that these special releases are no longer that special. They are only special as we are being told they are but fancy artwork, hiked prices and slick marketing do not necessarily make a special whisky. While the whisky itself may be perfectly acceptable, the only thing making this special in my opinion is the fact we are being told that it is.
I think Diageo need to perhaps rethink the Special Release as for many they have lost their sparkle. I for one will not be buying another Special Release when so much other good value whisky is available. Special means different things to each of us, but for me this falls short of the mark.