Times are hard, and I have to economise. After the potentially financially crippling Old vs New Series, the cost of which will be revealed in another article, I can no longer afford a decent article title. So this is it. If your name is Tam or Thomas, I’m not specifically saying hello to you, although you are welcome to join me, but just shortening the name of our next dram – Tamdhu.
Tamdhu sits in the parish of Knockando, not too far away from the Knockando distillery, and right beside the railway station for the parish. The Speyside line was instrumental in the genesis of many Speyside distilleries, such as Dailuaine, Imperial, Knockando, Tamdhu, Cragganmore and Balmenach, not to mention other distilleries within easy reach. Dr Beeching did the area a disservice by cutting this and the Boat Of Garten to Forres line, as it means I have to sit behind so many lorries on the A95 carrying casks, malt, yeast and waste products.
The original Knockando station was known as Dalbeallie, named after a farm in the area, was built after the distillery was constructed in 1899, long after the 1863 opening of the line. This name has enjoyed a resurgence as a special edition in commemoration of the railway in the Tamdhu story. The name changed to Knockando in May 1905, to avoid confusion with Dalbeattie Railway Station in Dumfries And Galloway. A similar problem existed further south in Strathspey when Abernethy Railway Station was renamed Nethybridge. Imagine landing up in the Highlands when you expected to be in north Fife!
The Knockando station goods yard was where the distillery used to take in its sherry casks. I’ve heard unconfirmed stories that they used to be unloaded in ships in Lossiemouth harbour, then taken on the railway to Elgin, then down to Knockando via Craigellachie railway station. Sadly the station closed in October 1965. The station and it’s signal box have survived, thanks to the distillery renovating them, and it is hoped that they will form the basis of a visitors centre in the future. Whisky and railway geeks unite!
The distillery has been owned for the majority of its life by Highland Distillers, later to become Edrington. They already had a sherry monster distillery in the form of Macallan, and I wonder if that was the reason that little known Tamdhu was chosen to be mothballed. Thankfully it wasn’t mothballed for long with Ian Macleod Distillers purchasing it in 2011, opening it again in 2012. The first release was the 10 year old with a more Victorian look to the bottle, now synonymous with the distillery.
Much is made of its former owners’ dedication to quality, but Tamdhu has just the same passion for their wooden casks. Using imported American Oak or native European Oak from Galicia in North Western Spain, their wood is dried then filled with Oloroso Sherry from the Vasyma Bodega in Jerez. The casks sit for 6 years, slowly absorbing the sherry into the wood fibres, ready to play its part in the maturation of whisky. And it isn’t just the cheap sherry that goes on to be used to make sherry vinegar – this far exceeds the 2 year minimum maturation that cheaper sherries may experience.
The dram I am going to try for this review was released as a 15 year old in 2019 as a limited annual release, with about 24000 bottles being produced. I have had this dram before, but I wasn’t in a place I could take notes to review. That’s a casual way of saying I was in the right physical place (a bar) not in the bodily correct place (on the way to being tipsy.) I do remember enjoying it, so I have purchased a nip so I can sample again to relay my experiences.
Region – Speyside Age – 15 yrs old Strength – 46% ABV Colour – Burnished (1.1) Cask Type – Oloroso Sherry (American + European Oak) Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Classic Sherry aroma, but not too powerful, balanced. Raisins, sherry, red apple peel, mint choc chip ice cream Palate – Raisins, honey, then the wood spices hit with pepper and ginger. A light alcohol tingle, drying, dark chocolate. Finish – medium. chocolate orange, biscuity, slightly bitter but not in an unpleasant way.
Tamdhu is always the sherried whisky I mention first if people are wanting a recommendation of a sherried whisky that isn’t Macallan, followed quickly by Glenfarclas and GlenDronach. I’ve never really had a bad dram from these distilleries, with the exception of an experience I had with a Glenfarclas 15 mini. I really do wonder why Edrington gave up this distillery when they were just on the cusp of a whisky boom. Perhaps they wanted more money to finance the Tellytubby land distillery they’ve made up in Craigellachie. Yes, I know that the building is impressive, but while the Macallan does make good whisky, they aren’t the only ones. Others do to, and they make it cheaper.
With the investment in good casks showing at Tamdhu, I really rate this distillery, even though on the global stage it is still a bit of a sleeper. Definitely one to watch and I cannot wait to see what will be replacing the 15 year old. With GlenDronach possibly edging towards the start of Chill Filtration on the 15 year old, if this does come to pass, I will certainly be looking at changing where I spend my money. If they do turn the old railway station into a visitors centre, I cannot wait to visit the distillery.
Tamdhu can be found in a 10 year old expression, which has been discontinued with the 12 year old replacing it. There are other limited editions as well as regular Batch releases of cask strength spirit.
The 15 year old costs around £82 in specialist whisky shops, and I’d say for that price, the quality you are getting from your dram is well worth it.
There is always somebody who wants to go one better. We all know that person. When you’ve been to Tenerife for your holidays, then they have gone to Elevenerife. They have the guitar amplifier that goes all the way to 11. You know the sort. They are really annoying to work with, as you end up feeling that you can’t say a thing without some sort of oneupmanship or some sort of belittling comment.
How annoying is it when somebody claims to be one better, yet only this time they aren’t trying to belittle you, their claim is actually true? As Winston Churchill said “I find humble pie to be a most edifying diet”, yet some people seem to have gone on hunger strike.
If you have the pleasure of visiting Dalwhinnie distillery, nestled on the northern reaches of Drumochter Pass, given the remote and desolate landscape around you, it is hard to conceive that there could be a distillery higher above sea level than this in the UK. But there is. And nobody in Dalwhinnie speaks about it. For if you were to visit the Glenlivet Distillery, but travel a bit further south, and you will come to a small settlement called Braes of Glenlivet. Travel through the hamlet and on your right will be the 1970’s distillery called Braeval. Despite the green farmland around you, believe it or not, if you stand beside the still house with a hand held GPS, you will find that you are 2 metres higher than Dalwhinnie. Of course, this could be accurate or inaccurate, depending on the satellites available and who our friends on the other side of the Atlantic are bombing, so lets not offend anybody any further and allow Dalwhinnie to not lose any face by saying they are the highest distillery with a visitors centre.
The Braes of Glenlivet was built in 1973, constructed for Seagram, a Canadian based distiller. The distillery was one of the first to be built as a fully automated distillery, requiring only one operative. It was also one of the first to be built as entirely open plan. There is a rumour that the first mash took place before the roof was put on so the incoming Canadian chairman could be impressed, but that’s likely to be a part of distillery folk lore that each distillery has its own tale. The other thing that is a bit fake about the distillery is the pagoda roof. Due to the age and automation of the distillery, there has never been any malting taking place on site, but it does help it’s brutal 1970’s architecture blend in with the local area.
If you think that the architecture is bad, then look a bit further north to its sister distillery in the shadow of Benrinnes, Allt-a-Bhainne. It also was constructed by Seagram, opening in 1975, and bought by Chivas in 2001. Allt-a-Bhainne was eventually given a single malt release in 2018, which while I thought it was ok, wasn’t going to set the world on fire, despite all of the marketing cliches that accompanied its release.
The distillery changed its name to Braeval in 1994, to avoid any confusion with its much more famous neighbour in the glen. Not that there would be much confusion, as Braeval as a single malt is quite hard to get a hold of. As far as I know there has never been an official bottling, other than the Distillery Reserve bottles released by Pernod Ricard who took over the distillery in 2000. The distillery was mothballed a year later, not resuming production until 2008.
If you want to taste a Braeval, then your best bet is going to be through an independent bottler, and for this we have to be thankful that Douglas Laing has done just that with their Old Particular brand. Given the hot mess of the Allt-a-Bhainne release, I’d dread to think of what PR would do with Braeval. So it comes to be that I ordered some time ago a 3CL sample from Master Of Malt in order to make up a tasting set. I’d never tasted Braeval before but thought the time had come to set this right.
Old Particular Braeval 18 (Douglas Laing cask 11205)
Region – Speyside Age – 18 yr old Strength – 48.4% Colour – Jonquiripe Corn (0.4) Cask Type – Sherry Butt Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Quite light, Honey, apple, walnuts, spices, a hint of malt. Palate – oily, apple continues, honey, slightly sweet. Finish – medium/long. Warm and drying, sweet. Apple peel, milk chocolate, hazelnuts, a hint of raisin. Water smoothed things out a bit, but shortened the finish.
Not a bad first venture. Definitely very pleasant to drink, and despite it’s slightly higher ABV, the spirit doesn’t seem very forward; there isn’t any great spirit arrival here, it is all gently warming, with a surprising dryness that thankfully doesn’t cause your mouth to pucker. There is a bit more of a spirit burn as it goes down your throat, but burn is a bad word to use here – heat and warmth is probably the best description. This is a malt you could seek out and enjoy if it wasn’t just for one catch – it’s discontinued.
By all means you could look around at auction to see if it turns up, but you’d be better off keeping an eye on what independent bottlers are releasing. If you can find a Braeval from a sherry cask with the same sort of age, I’d definitely recommend it.
It has been noticed that perhaps I have a tendency towards the negative.
I’m sure that if you are a regular reader then this will come as no surprise. Being Aberdonian it could be argued that this is a genetic trait, and that’s a hard argument to disagree with. As an example there is an apocryphal story of two Aberdonians talking about their holidays. One is showing the other their holiday snaps. The Aberdonian viewing the snaps sees them all, thinks for a minute and points to one of the photos and says “that’s the worst one.” Every silver lining has a cloud.
But don’t think we’re all gloomy all of the time. It is worth remembering no matter how dour the day is, the sun still rises behind the clouds. Inside I’m a ray of sunshine, though at the moment I’ve got every reason to feel less than delighted. Without revealing too much which could land me in bother, I’m currently sailing in what has been described as a ‘High Risk’ or ‘War-Like’ zone. Research a region called Cabo Delgado in Mozambique and you’ll get the picture, so any bit of good news will easily brighten my mood, even for a short while.
It was one of my fellow crew members on board that supplied the reason (plus some of the material for this article). One of the purposes for starting this blog was because of people at work knowing about my whisky geekery and them wanting to ask questions. Unfortunately I don’t often have the time to continually talk about whisky while at work, though I have the occasional burst. One of the contractors who regularly returns to this ship had mentioned that he had a few older bottles of whisky and was showing me the pictures. I was asked if they were worth anything. It’s often the case in these situations that normally there will be a handful of 1970’s Johnnie Walker Red bottles or some Bells, but the first bottle was a 1980’s Bowmore 12. While there also were a couple of 1980’s blends, my eyes were opened when a 1990’s Macallan 10 y.o popped up. Then a Highland Park 12 in the 1980’s dumpy bottling. I was fully paying attention when a Port Ellen 21 appeared in the photos. There’s a few 1980’s single malts also which may raise a few pounds, yet there are more whisky bottles to be photographed.
You can bet your bottom dollar it was a great feeling to be able to give my colleague the good news. If they chose to sell, they would get a tidy sum for the whisky they may never drink, or alternatively they would have quite an impressive small scale whisky collection to start with. But despite this, thoughts of an overcast nature were gathering on the horizon. I remembered how I started collecting whisky and wondered what I would do differently now. Unlike my colleague, I started from ground zero.
My first collectable bottles were two Glenmorangie 1993 Truffle Oak Reserve bought at the distillery for £150, which are now worth considerably more, but until I developed a focused collection policy I was buying bottles that I felt may realise some value. It turned out that I was buying the same sort of bottles everybody else was. I’m now starting to think that this may not have been the best plan. There are a few of reasons why this may be the case.
If everybody else is collecting them and not drinking them, the bottle will not be truly rare. It’s just not easily available. Unless it’s in the high demand / low production category, the residual demand will not be that great. Even some of the collectible bottles from Macallan are released in the order of tens of thousands.
If supply is not that limited, the bottle will not necessarily increase that much in value from the point you bought it. The bottles such as Springbank local barley aren’t rare, yet the hype surrounding them is what is driving the price. Ditto committee release Ardbeg. The increases in price on the secondary market is just down to us. We do it to ourselves.
It is also likely that should there be an economic event that may persuade people to sell (such as mass unemployment or recession) then everybody is going to be selling the same stuff at the same time. Ergo, the price gets suppressed due to higher availability.
What I’m trying to say is perhaps it is all well and good to buy new releases as they could well earn a bit of money for those of you who have the prime concern of realising a profit Or at least you would hope they hold their value with inflation. But truly, beyond the initial flipper craze there is no saying any of these bottles are a reliable investment. I personally think the best thing to do is look for the older classics, which may have a track record of increasing prices or take a chance on lower key bottles. Who would have thought an investment in a £40 bottle of standard 10 year old Macallan would reach £400+?
To find out what is worth keeping aside, maybe ignore the plethora of new releases that people buy and put straight into a cupboard. They’ll probably never taste them unless one of their dram swap buddies has two bottles and shares one. Instead, look at what is popular, good value and potentially getting discontinued. One example I went for was the Old Pulteneny 17. At one time it was only £70 a bottle. Now if you can find one at retail, expect to pay £100 – £140. One more recent prospect is the Glendronach range, before the decision to remove the Non-Chill Filtered statement.
Often it is said in whisky you often have to speculate to accumulate, but I prefer to paraphrase a verse from the Good Book which says “Do not conform but be transformed”. Don’t follow just because everybody else is buying this and that. Make informed decisions in order to pave your own road on which to continue your whisky journey.
Ostensibly, whisky is for drinking so go forth and make your discoveries. Perhaps keep back something for a rainy day. Don’t just focus on the potential profit, but perhaps look on it as being a whisky custodian. Carve your own path and don’t merely follow the crowd. If you do your research and the whisky is truly great and not just another insipid inaugural release, then it will be just as valuable in the future, if not more. If the whisky doesn’t perhaps meet your financial expectations, you will still have a whisky you enjoyed from yesteryear which can be savoured or shared in decades to come. That will be a moment of untold riches and is probably the most positive thing I can advise you to do. That is exactly why I advise only to buy whisky at a price you would be willing to drink it at. That’s what it may come down to.
I am sure you can guess that I’m never likely to get mobbed at any event and certainly I am able to do my shopping without being mobbed by fans. God forbid that ever happens. I’m just quite happy plugging away at what I want to do, and living in an area with not a lot of people in it when we are outside normal tourist season suits me fine. To be honest, lockdowns haven’t really made a lot of difference to me during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m not often doing anything that interesting if I am at home from my normal job. Indeed, part of me doesn’t want pandemic lockdown to end, as it means having to face more and more people.
I’m not as social as you may think.
The distillery from which the dram for this review hails from has a similar sort of circumstance. It just isn’t that well known at all. Firstly, there is no Glen Spey. The River Spey rises in streams that flow into Loch Spey, a small loch situated in the southern edge of the Monadhliath Mountains, just to the north of the Creag Meagaidh nature reserve.
Despite being so unknown, it may surprise you that Glen Spey, which is located in the Speyside village of Rothes is not a young distillery, having been built in 1878, around the same time as Glenrothes. It was initially named Mill Of Rothes distillery, but changed to Glen Spey in 1887 and the distillery was sold to the London gin makers W.A. Gilbey. This would be one of the three distilleries owned by Gilbey, the other two being Strathmill in Keith, and Knockando further to the south. Gilbey eventually merged with Justerini and Brookes, a London wine merchant. This formed International Distillers and Vinters, eventually becoming part of Diageo in 1997. Over 120 years of existence and only been sold once – remarkable for such an old distillery that is part of the big four distillers in Scotland.
While in the care of Gilbeys, this became the home of their blend made from the three distilleries they owned. The blend was known as Spey Royal, and was produced into the 1970’s. I actually own a bottle of this but I’ve got doubts over its provenance. Despite being reassured it is not a fake, there are a few things about it that mean I am going to just keep it as a talking piece.
Glen Spey was not one of the original Flora and Fauna releases. The range that started in 1991 originally only had 22 bottles, all of which had wooden boxes and 16 had white capsules to show they were 1st releases. Another Rothes distillery with a Flora & Fauna release – Speyburn. Due to the very short time it was in production, this is now the holy grail of collectors, now regularly seeing £2000+ hammer prices at auction. By 2001, a lot of the Flora and Fauna range had been discontinued due to Diageo selling or closing the distilleries. Aberfeldy, Aultmore, Balmenach, Bladnoch, Dufftown, Clynelish, Craigellachie, Glendullan, Pittyvaich, Rosebank, Royal Brackla and Speyburn had been either sold or a new distillery expression created with Flora and Fauna being withdrawn. Mortlach would also follow. So in 2001 four new releases were introduced – Auchroisk Glen Elgin, Glen Spey and Strathmill. The new four were not released with any packaging. Later on Glen Elgin would also be discontinued in favour of a distillery branded bottle.
So, despite its relative invisibility, does Glen Spey shout out its credentials? Only one way to find out.
Glen Spey 12 (Flora & Fauna)
Region – Speyside Age – 12 yrs old Strength – 43% Colour – Pale Gold (0.3) Cask Type – Not known, suspect bourbon Colouring – Yes Chill Filtered – Yes Nose -Green, light, grassy, pineapple, light malt and barely perceptible smoke. Palate -Sweet, Light, slightly oily. Apple, sour lemon, nutmeg, slightly soapy Finish – short. earthy finish, bitter and soapy with a bit of aniseed right at the end. Gives a rough burn down the throat when swallowed.
Glen Spey is a gentle Speysider. Quite a pleasing nose, but that is for me where the pleasure ends. So many times I have been switched on by an aroma, but only to be let down by palate or finish. In this case both. While I for many years have championed the Flora and Fauna range, this is one that I haven’t tasted until now. Lets just say I won’t be tempted to open either of the full sized bottles I have. While this distillery may play a great part in Diageo blended whiskies, this example of it as a single malt is disappointing.
If you are tempted to buy this, make sure it is only to complete your Flora and Fauna collection. You can buy this for £43 online but you may be better spending your money on something a bit better. Speyburn 10 is also from Rothes and is not only tastier, but cheaper as well.
When you look at all the whiskies that are available on-line, there is a stunning array of bottles available. The mind boggles with all the different options when you consider age statements, cask finishes and different strengths. We’ve never had it so good. Often it is just a case of buying something that appeals to you based on flavours in the tasting notes, which incidentally may not be that accurate according to your palate. One such distillery with a large range of different bottlings over the years is Ardbeg. There is an annual release that generates a fuss as people flock to buy it in a feeding frenzy that would put a piraña shoal to shame. However there is a bottle that is cheap, easily available and reliable – the plain and simple 10 year old.
I used to be a fan of Ardbeg 10, though at one point I felt it became a bit inconsistent; far too medicinal and with this it put me off. I still loved peat but I’d become unfaithful to one of my peaty loves by deciding it was time to elope with Laphroig 10 instead. I would even abandon my first peaty crush, Talisker 10. All of a sudden my whisky morals had developed into that of a randy alley cat. These were the days well before I got totally into collecting and drinking whisky and hadn’t developed the inquisitive wunderlust that was to come in later years. Even once I had extensive dalliances with other whiskies, I wasn’t ready to return back to Ardbeg 10. I knew she would have me back, but I just wasn’t ready.
My peat journey continued. I eventually discovered the young but mega peated Octomores. Eventually, the time came to pass that I was ready to return to Ardbeg, but I still couldn’t. Unfortunately for me (and this may seem weird) Ardbeg had just become too popular. I had been on the mailing list (aka known as The Committee) but the postings were coming less and less relevant to where I had been heading on my whisky journey. In my mind I’m one of these ‘cool kids’ who rejects mainstream, and the constant promotion of product to my inbox with more and more outlandish claims was getting to be a bit tiresome. But most likely in reality, I’m not so cool, but a cynical, bitter Scottish curmudgeon. When I decided to cull the membership of things that pushed their propaganda into my private online space, Ardbeg and Macallan were the first to go. There’s only so much you can take of seeing the bottles you fail to win in the ballots appear on the secondary markets within a week of release, putting them out of reach of those who really valued them for more than the financial benefits selling them could realise.
If you want to gauge my measure of disgust and disappointment, you only have to look on websites selling the Arrrrrrrdbeg release to commemorate the retirement of Mickey Head. Released at £150, days later appearing on re-sale sites for £250+. And that’s just a recent example. There are scores more if you care to look.
But then, surely the 10 deserves another look at? For years it has been a stoic soldier on the shelves of supermarkets and whisky shops. It is almost invisible in full sight as I look to make my choices. But I have a ten year old Ardbeg unopened at home, though with the number of open full sized bottles I already have, I wasn’t wanting to open another one just to remember that there was a reason why I left my peaty love behind in the first place. It was a visit to the Speyside Whisky Shop on my way through to Aberdeen on work business that saw me buy a miniature to take away while in quarantine before heading offshore. It is in this environment that I decided to take my former peaty mistress away to a Buckinghamshire hotel and see if we could have a little fun together during my 10 days quarantine.
Region – Islay Age – 10 years old Strength – 46% abv Colour – Pale Straw (0.2) Cask Type – Bourbon Colouring – Yes Chill Filtered – No Nose – Sweet, Phenolic, Brine, Lime, Honey, Lavender Palate – Honey, slightly oil mouth feel. TCP, Nutty, Walnuts, cherries, creamy, smoky, brine. Finish – wood smoke, iodine, buttered toast, drying in the end with a hint of cinnamon bun and brine.
The fact that I brought only a miniature with me didn’t really amount to a rekindling of the romance with Ardbeg. It was pretty much a one night stand (wham bam, thank you mam). But it was one of those dangerous ones where passions that have been suppressed for so long rapidly come back to the surface. Did we have fun? Well, seeing as I’m no Jim Murray and I realise that I have readers of both genders and do not want to incur the biblical wrath of a certain female whisky writer and her personal crusade, all I will say is that I have been foolish in ignoring this whisky for so long. And it brings me to a serious whisky topic – what has changed – me or the whisky?
Not all of my reviews are going to give you a twee tourist guide of the local area around the distillery, and as I have not been to Ardbeg or even Islay, it will be obvious that I’m not the best person to give this information. But I can give you food for thought, and today I hopefully present you with at least a midnight snack of cerebral sustenance. I don’t really think that the whisky has changed that much, as all the notes I remember are still there. I’m surprised that I remember any, as one of the reasons I tend not to attend any virtual tastings is my memory of flavours is pretty shocking. I can taste things, but often can’t place them in a decent time frame. One dram can take a whole evening to discover the flavours for me. The Ardbeg 10 had nowhere to hide in this instance.
However, this whisky leopard can’t change it’s spots. The spirit is highly peated to a specification of around 55 ppm from malted barley obtained from the Port Ellen Maltings. Kilchoman Machir Bay is peated to the same specification and I wasn’t fond of that at all. However there is something magical still about the Ardbeg that is beckoning you in. This supermarket whisky is the ‘Plain Jane’ that turns into the dominatrix in the bedroom once you taste it. I’m liking it, yet still not taking to the iodine tastes, yet the aroma from my glass is wafting across my nostrils and I know that I am going to have to take another sip and it tells me that “I WILL ENJOY IT!”. Pain for pleasure.
If this dram was a song, then it would without be a doubt be ‘Heroin’ by the Velvet Underground. You need to listen to this song lying still in the dark to understand it – trust me. And the louder the better.
The whisky hasn’t changed. I have. Since I’d dumped Ardbeg in favour of other drinks, I have dallied with other much peatier whiskies. I had leapt onto the young Octomore spirit with reckless abandon; the different experiences maybe tuned my palate in new directions. No matter how long you have been in whisky, exposure to different whiskies will educate your palate, and when you return to things that you may have not been so keen on in the past, being a wiser, older dog you’ll know that you can learn new tricks to rekindle affection of your mistress or master. This will only benefit your whisky journey.
But coincidence has the last laugh. Only 3 days after I drafted this review, Matt Mckay published an interesting article which touches on how taste perception changes. Matt, for those of you who don’t know is the head of marketing and communications at Bimber Distillery in London. He’s also the main writer forThe Dramble Blog that I often mention. Click here to take a read of his articlewhich includes a great Glen Scotia review. Goes to show that my Peaty Mistress never changed and remained faithful until I returned.
They say that every cloud has a silver lining. The larger demand making some whiskies harder to get has been tempered by the fact that there has been a massive influx of new distilleries on the scene. Not so long ago, there were only 3 operational single malt distilleries in the Lowland region; Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie, but now this has been expanded by a handful more becoming operational. The most famous arguably being Daftmill which released its first whisky at 12 years old in 2018. Also releasing its first whisky in 2018 was Eden Mill Distillery, and the Kingsbarns Distillery with its first Founders Release. Following on in the same year was the Dream To Dram bottling.
Dream to Dram was quite an appropriate name for such a whisky, as the concept of a distillery was born through the dream of former caddie Douglas Clement. Funding was initially gained through contacts he had made during his time as a caddie, but funding still fell short, so the project was sold to the Wemyss family to see the project through to conclusion. The distillery has been built in a former farm steading on the Cambo Estate, which the Wemyss have historical family connections to.
Dream to Dram was the first publicly available bottle from Kingsbarns. I’m not in the habit of chasing first releases, especially those which have been released at a young age. However just because a whisky is young, doesn’t mean that it will be a poor whisky. In this case, rather than buy a full bottle I decided to use Drinks By The Dram, which offered the chance to purchase a 3cl sample. And, this is a dram that has won several awards such as – World Whisky Awards 2020 – Best Scotch Lowlands Single Malt Scotch Whisky, World Whisky Awards 2020 – Category Winner, Lowlands Single Malt Scotch Whisky (12 Years & Under), Spirits Business Scotch Whisky Masters 2019 – Silver, International Spirits Challenge 2019 Taste – Silver, Scottish Whisky Awards 2019 – Highly Commended. It seems that there is little chance of getting a duff dram, so lets find out.
Kingsbarns Dream To Dram
Region – Lowland Age – 3 years old Strength – 46% Colour – Pale Gold (0.2) Cask Type – 90% 1st Fill Bourbon, 10% 1st Fill STR Barrique Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Bananas, Pears, Green Apple, Lemon, Honey, light cereal note. Palate – Light body, quite thin. Creamy taste, vanilla, honey, peppery spices, ginger Finish – Medium – Short, towards the short side. Alcohol burn on the way down the throat, lemon, honey, ginger, pepper.
Well, in my life in the oil and gas industry, I have seen many great things promised and yet fail to deliver. To rework the saying in the first paragraph of this review, ‘Every Silver Lining has a Cloud’. I do realise that this dram has won multiple awards, but I don’t see anything in this dram to take it above average. The mouthfeel is light and watery, the finish has a firey alcohol burn which I didn’t experience when tasting my last cask strength whisky neat.
The one thing that many new distilleries seem to do is release whiskies as soon as it is possible and it could be that the drive behind it is to get income into the business. I really think if this was case, it wasn’t the best plan. The whisky lacks any really definitive character in the palate and the finish is short and rough in my opinion. Personally I think the approaches taken by Daftmill and Ballindalloch are much more realistic to release a whisky when it is truly ready and not just when it is drinkable. If your spirit is good, then waiting a bit longer would definitely be worth it. That’s my honest take on it, though I am aware many would disagree.
It’s not to say that this is a bad dram just because I didn’t take to it at all. Taste is indeed subjective. The spirit is good – they’ve bottled at a decent strength, no added colour, no chill filtration. Long fermentation and clear wort will fill the spirit with ester-y goodness. But for me I think it needed longer in the cask. It crosses my mind that when thinking of ‘Dream To Dram’ I’d suggest that a lie – in was needed.
I’m sure however this is definitely a distillery to watch out for with older releases. I can’t wait.
Whisky Myths Busted #3 – what is and isn’t a Speyside whisky.
In an effort to further cleanse my soul, we’ll start with a bit of a confession. I often confess on here, as it’s almost anonymous due to the fact I’m sadly not going to meet the vast majority of whoever reads this. However, as my readership slowly seems to go up and up, it can’t be a bad thing, can it? Perhaps people are just waiting to see what’s next. Sorry to disappoint the personality vultures, this time it isn’t salacious.
Confessing that I can be a bit of a pedant won’t come as a surprise for many, as some of you may already have guessed, but it’s not always the case. I haven’t been pedantic now for three weeks, 2 days, 17 hours, 22 minutes and 30 seconds. However there is one bit of pedantry that will not leave me alone; it’s the blurring of Speyside and Highland whisky regions, especially misidentifying Highland whisky as Speysides.
Those of you who have plenty of time to spend on whisky social media may be aware of a YouTube Channel called Aqvavitae. Run by Roy Duff, he runs a live stream mostly every week on his channel that is known as a v-Pub, where all sorts of people can drop in and listen to guests and get involved via live chat to discuss many various whisky topics. I often download the stream and listen to it in the car, as the fact I spend half the year at sea and the other half too busy to take part means I miss out. However, I do enjoy the quiz at the end (even if Menno is doing one of the impossible ones), and also the new(ish) section called “Is it a Speyside”.
The premise of ‘Is it a Speyside?’ is that a guest has to guess what Roy has in his glass. It’s always an available to buy core expression. The contestant then has 10 questions to find out what Roy is drinking. Sometimes they are against the clock. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I have managed once to be the winner of this competition in the chat, but it was a Tobermory 12 Roy had, definitely not a Speyside. The prize is a channel Sniper Coin, which many use to top their Glencairn glasses.
One thing that I have noticed that during the chat, many people when thinking of Speyside whiskies suggest whiskies that are often not even near Speyside. It isn’t limited to this particular situation, there are plenty of examples of people calling whiskies from Speyside on websites, even bottlers get it wrong – my bottle of Ardlair (unpeated Ardmore) is labelled as a Speyside by German independent bottler Liquid Sun. Recently I’ve seen websites or social media posts describe GlenDronach, Ardmore, Glenglassaugh and Royal Brackla as Speyside, and Macallan and Dalwhinnie being called Highland whiskies and not Speyside. It is time to clear up the confusion.
The Speyside Whisky Region was according to my research not legally recognised as a whisky producing area until the advent of the Scotch Whisky Regulations (SWR) 2009. Anything north of the Lowland area is classed as Highland, but the enclave of Speyside has been recognised due to the high density of distilleries in that area. The regulations are very clear on what is and isn’t a Speyside. Regulation 10.6c outlines the confines of what is classed as the Speyside whisky region, namely which are the 8 council wards of Morayshire Council, plus the Badenoch and Strathspey area of Highland Council.
It’s not practical to publish maps here, as I don’t want to fall foul of copyright, but you can find access to PDF maps of Morayshire and Badenoch and Strathspey by clicking on the area title below.
To make it easier, here are where the distilleries are located. (brackets denote silent distilleries with surviving buildings or bottlings)
Because prior to the creation of the Speyside whisky sub-region, all distilleries would have been known as Highland whiskies, or in its older, less definitive form, the Glenlivet suffix would be applied. Therefore the saying that all Speysiders are Highlanders yet all Highlanders aren’t Speysiders couldn’t be more true. Yet there are some Speyside distilleries do still describe themselves as Highland whiskies – Dalwhinnie, Glenfarclas Knockdhu (An Cnoc) and Macallan are four that spring to mind. While it is quite obvious that Macallan and Glenfarclas are in the heart of Speyside, Dalwhinnie is located in the southern part of Badenoch. It’s location at the start of a mountain pass makes you think that it could only be a Highland distillery, yet it is closer to the River Spey than many of the distilleries often thought to be quintessential Speyside.
Even Knockdhu / An Cnoc is just within the Keith and Cullen ward of Morayshire. The boundary kinks out east just to the north of the distillery. I have been in this area many times to use my preferred Honda dealer which is close by and is in Aberdeenshire, so I just assumed Knockdhu was too. Proves we can’t always be right. Better still, my inner pedant got some satisfaction, the mental equivalent of having a hobnob with a cup of coffee. Ahhhh!
Finally however, the SWR forbid the mentioning of two regions on a label, so distilleries in Speyside have to choose one or another. Just to mix it up, Aberlour once labelled itself as a Highland whisky, but now identifies as a Speyside on some bottlings. That’s ok, as long as it’s not both on the same label at the same time.
I hope this is useful, perhaps check outRoy’s channel on YouTube and take part in ‘Is It A Speyside?’ I’m sure he will be glad to welcome you, and now you are armed with some more knowledge, perhaps you can win ‘Is it a Speyside’!
Taste Review #106 – Arran Master Of Distilling 2 / Bere Barley 10
Thankfully this is the end.
Not of my blog, but thankfully it will be the last review in a while where I sample two whiskies at the same time. I find this pretty intensive, as I like to spend at least a couple of hours with each dram to try and understand them as best I can, given that the majority of time I use miniatures or sample sizes.
The two drams I bring to you today were given to me by a friend who told me that both he and his wife loved one of these drams and wanted to know what I thought. As a fellow countryman who hails from the east coast of Scotland, he’ll know that free will always be accepted. Take first, ask questions later.
I haven’t drunk a lot of Arran before, mainly because of my normal drinking habits take me to Speyside or Highlands, but not the islands. There are a few Arran miniatures that are sitting in my study waiting for review, but so far the time to taste them hasn’t been found. As I type this I feel that it is a shame, as the last Arran I reviewed, the now discontinued 14 year old was really nice. I was that impressed I made sure a few went into store so I can access that delicious spirit in the future.
The Arran distillery is a relatively young distillery, although it is starting to look much more grown up now we have so many new distilleries that have opened in the recent past, such as Ardnmurchan, Raasay, Daftmill, Dornoch, Eden Mill, Kingsbarns and there are a handful more in the process of not being far away from releasing their own spirit. Production started in 1995, so this means that the range is now able to stretch to 25 years old, bearing testimony that the distillery has most definitely come of age. By next year we may see the first three year old spirit being released at Lagg, the distillery at the south end of Arran that had to be built to enable the Isle Of Arran Distillers Ltd to have more capacity to concentrate on peated spirit. So far the main peated spirit at their main Lochranza facility has been the Machrie Moor release.
This release was bottled in honour of the master distiller at Arran, James MacTaggart, who had chosen the selection of Palo Cortado casks from Jerez, Spain. I have to say that I am more familiar with PX or Oloroso Sherried whiskies. Palo Cortado is a sherry type that starts maturation under a blanket of flor (yeast). When this does not remain intact, air comes into contact with the sherry, which starts to oxidise and form an Amontillado Sherry. This will give a nutty, savoury taste. However in the case of Palo Cortado, this doesn’t always happen and it becomes richer and darker like an Oloroso Sherry.
In the same shipment from my friend arrived another Arran whisky, the Bere Barley 10. This is a barley that in Britain is probably the oldest grain in continuous production. Bere is reckoned to have been brought to the British Isles by the Vikings, and is mainly cultivated in the North of Scotland, where the barley is able to grow in a short season on low pH soils. This is mostly in Caithness, Sutherland, Shetland and Orkney. This is a 6 row grain compared to the more common 2 row, but possibly due to its rapid growth and short season, it is not the most productive grain for the purposes of alcohol. However, in the 19th century, large amounts of Bere barley was used extensively by the Campbeltown distilleries. As strains of barley improved, it largely fell out of use. Nowadays, the only distillery releases that I can think of that use this Bere Barley are that of Springbank and Bruichladdich.
It is now time to move onto the whisky.
Arran Master of Distilling 2
Region – Highland Age – 12 y.o Strength -51.8% ABV Colour – Amontillado Sherry (0.9) Cask Type – Palo Cortado Sherry Colouring -No Chill Filtered -No Nose – Sweet. Nougat, Caramel, Floral (violets, rose water), Almond, hint of chocolate, porridge oats. A slight sour note of dry white wine. Palate – Medium body, sweet initially then a kick of alcohol. Peanut skin, orange zest, walnuts, almonds, red berries, slightly drying. Finish – Medium long. Cherry, chocolate powder, hint of must, possibly from an old book / old unvarnished wood furniture. A smattering of brine, slightly drying. With water, there was an increase in savoury note which reminded me of sautéed mushrooms.
Arran Bere Barley 10
Region – Highland Age – 10 year old Strength – 56.2% Colour – Pale Gold (0.3) Cask Type – Bourbon Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Honey, Almonds, Vanilla, Peach, buttery bread / brioche, Floral notes, Lavender to the fore, mixing with the aforementioned honey, Coconut, Mango, Cardamom. Quite a lot going on in the nose! Palate -Cask Strength quite obvious here. Warming but not overheated alcohol arrival. Waxy mouthfeel. Quite floral, Pine, Honey, Sour Apple, Peppercorn. Bitterness, strong black tea. Finish – Short – Medium. Leafy – Spinach? Brine, more white peppercorn. Bay leaves, bitter citrus. Drying and fizzy.
As I said before I really liked the Arran 14, and although I hadn’t tasted much more Arran than that, I always had intended to try more, hence why I still have a selection of minis at home. I am glad that I kept that mindset, as the Master of Distilling 2 was a good dram for me. I always love a whisky with a cherry note to it, and the last time that I had that was the Wild Turkey Longbranch. My wife has since bought me a bottle, which I cannot wait to get cracked into. Whether or not I buy a Master of Distilling 2 remains to be seen, as although I like it, I’m at the point that I cannot really buy much more whisky in the vain hope I’m going to drink it within the next two years. I might still get a bottle to put into store, and see what happens.
The Bere Barley was quite good as well, but the strong leafy finish after the continual sweetness of MoD2 made my palate prefer the sweeter dram. I do have a sweet tooth! I found that both whiskies had a really pleasant nose, but only the 12 year old whisky really followed up with a pleasing palate and finish. Plus, despite being interested in whisky for many years, that is the first Palo Cortado casked whisky that I’ve knowingly had, and I liked it.
Master of Distilling 2 is available for around £75 if you look around the web. Bere Barley is about £36. Both not bad value for the experience given. I enjoyed the Bere barley 10 times more than Aberlour 12, and that cost £40!
Taste Review #105 – Robertsons Of Pitlochry Teaninich 12 and Tobermory 11
The letter T when I think of beverages has a big meaning for me, both reasons mean I have to be careful. Firstly, a big letter T in Scotland is synonymous with Tennents Lager. Which, if I was to be kind can easily be described as ‘Training’ Lager. That’s why many bars and pubs that stock this liquid have a large red T sign outside, pretty much as a learner driver has a red letter L on their vehicle in the UK.
The other reason I have to be concerned about the letter T is that while offshore over the years, many people in my trade play a special game, and in order not to lose, you have to be on your guard 100% of the time throughout the 12 hour shift. They will do anything to get you to say the ‘T’ sound. Usually it will involve getting you to spell a word that has T in it, say an acronym, or just saying something like ‘T-Shirt’. Because as soon as that letter comes out of your mouth, you can be sure that somebody is going to say “Cheers! Milk and no sugar please!” And thus it becomes your turn to get the teas for the other 5 in the room. If you aren’t alert this game gets onerous very quickly.
Thankfully in this review, we have two whiskies beginning with the letter T, one from a distillery I have reviewed before and one I have not. These are from the Tobermory and Teaninich distilleries. I unexpectedly obtained these two whiskies after reviewing another Robertsons of Pitlochry release, the epic Allt Dour. It seems on a small corner of social media I caused a little bit of a buying frenzy. Not one person I know to have bought it has had anything bad to say about it, many buying multiple bottles. Even I ended up buying three. Anyway, the proprietor of Robertson’s of Pitlochry, Ewan McIlwraith was grateful for the positive review. Understandably, 2020 was a horrific year for tourist towns, and footfall in Pitlochry dropped to near zero, and a little help in generating sales was very welcome.
To be honest, I do this with all the small whisky shops I frequent. The little guy needs help in these times, a lot more than the likes of Amazon, or whatever other online only retailer you use, but mostly Amazon gets my ire. Ewan had said that he would send some samples of his two latest bottlings. I was delighted to get a little recognition, but I don’t write reviews for this purpose; I do it to recommend truly good whisky. Those who have had an Allt Dour will back up my writing. Anyway, imagine my surprise when my two samples turn up. They came in 70cl size. I was flabbergasted at Ewan’s generosity. While he did not ask for a review, I felt that it would be a decent thing to do. Of course, I will not let the fact that I did not pay for these bottles cloud my judgement.
I’ve reviewed the history of the Tobermory distillery before in this Tobermory 12 review. It is an unpeated Highland Malt from the island of Mull. Teaninich is also an old distillery, having been founded in 1817 by Captain Hugh Munro. Teaninich has been in pretty much constant production since its formation, but probably with gaps owing to the World Wars in the 20th century. It was in the 1930s that the distillery came in the care of DCL, eventually becoming part of what now is known as Diageo. Nothing remains of the old distillery, with several rebuilding and refurbishing projects haven taken place over the years.
Teaninich is special, as it is one of two Scottish distilleries that do not use a mash tun, utilising a mash filter which ensures an ultra clear wort for the fermentation. Clear wort will give a less cereal based spirit, with less lipids resulting in a less oily mouthfeel. It is a distillery that almost exclusively produces malt for Diageo Blended Whiskies, but the only official release is the 10 year old Flora And Fauna. It is quite often seen as an independent bottle, with my most recent Teaninich being the Sherry finished 12 year old from James Eadie.
I’ve got a big anticipation of these malts and I am hoping that I get the same experience as I did with the Allt Dour, so it is time to look at the whisky.
Robertsons Of Pitlochry Teaninich 12 (cask 702603)
Region -Highland Age -12 years old Strength – 55.1% ABV Colour – Jonquiripe Corn (0.4) Cask Type – 1st Fill Sherry Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Creamy, Light Oak, slight vanilla, bit grassy, pineapple. Added water and the creaminess increased. Palate – Slightly oily mouthfeel, but still quite light. A pleasant sweet arrival, still creamy, caramel, sultanas, cinnamon, hint of brine. Easily drunk neat. Water reduces the alcohol and introduces a bit of peppery spice. Finish – Long, warming – very pleasant, even without water. The oily spirit coats the mouth. A peppery, slightly astringent with no bitterness. At the end I get a hint of salted caramel.
Robertsons of Pitlochry Tobermory 11 (cask 900161)
Region – Highland Age – 11 years old Strength – 61.3% ABV Colour – Burnished(1.1) Cask Type – 1st Fill Sherry Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Quite sweet. Sherry, caramel, dark sugar, honey, sultanas, raisins, creme caramel Palate – Sweet arrival, but rapidly builds into peppery spice. Rich, oily, a bit drying, caramel with a hint of Jaffa Cake Finish – Medium long, coconut, cocoa, raisins, peppery spice, Toffee.
Did I get an Allt Dour experience? Yes and no. Thankfully both whiskies were excellent, but I preferred one more than the other. The Teaninich was my preference, and that is solely because I was able to drink that one neat with no problem. That could have got me in trouble to be honest as I found it definitely reacted with my more-ish gland! Quite sweet, which for me is a bonus. There is a slightly oily mouthfeel, but this is more WD-40 rather than oil out of a V8 engine.
I was looking forward to the Tobermory, as I liked the 10 year old I tried earlier last year, and of course the 10 year old peated Tobermory (Ledaig) that I had as part of my old vs new series. However, it didn’t press my buttons in the same way, but this is solely due to personal preference. I found the spices a bit too strong for my liking initially, but adding water reined it in a bit. I did enjoy it, but I feel I need a bit more time with this whisky to get to understand it. I am really looking forward to trying it again after a trip offshore.
I have to say that both these whiskies give very little to complain about – Cask Strength, Natural Colour, Age Statement and Non-Chill Filtered. 1st Fill Sherry cask matured. Both tick all the boxes. Whatever one you pick, you’ll not be disappointed. To prove this point, when I return from my latest offshore trip, I’ll be sending some to my friends, so they can see the goodness for themselves and also to prove that I have not been positive due to the manner in which I obtained these bottles.
Click here for Robertson’s Of Pitlochry web page Are they good value? Teaninich is £65 and the Tobermory is £70. I would suggest for the spirit you are getting with these single cask, cask strength whisky bottles that they are indeed good value. With only 298 bottles of Teaninich and 324 of Tobermory available, these won’t hang about for ever. I’d recommend buying either one of these bottles, but if you buy both, £135 for two cask strength whiskies of this quality is a bargain. If you are feeling flush, the Allt Dour is still available and fits into this line up perfectly. Click here for Robertson’s Of Pitlochry website.
Yours in Spirits
Thanks to Ewan for these (generous) ‘samples’. I look forward to returning to the shop and hopefully get a chat.
If you are a regular follower of my blog, (and if you aren’t, then you should be!) you will know that over the past four months I’ve been doing taste tests of drams that are generations apart. The reason for doing this is to confirm or deny the saying that whisky was better in the olden days.
It is often the habit of people of previous generations that proclaim things were better in times gone by in their era. I used to scoff at them, but now as I approach a certain age, I can tell you that this may be the case. When I look back on tales of my own job, this is certainly the case. I remember the days when a ship would dock and there would be a herd of ‘Gangway Gazelles’ leaving the ship to head to the nearest bar. Times have changed now, and these things are frowned upon more and more, probably because they got tired of police arriving at boats, people just not turning up at the boat on time, or people just not turning up at all. It’s always an immediately sobering feeling waking up to see your ship sitting at anchor in the bay wondering how on earth you are going to get onboard. Only happened to me once…..
Whisky seems to have the same process. So many times you hear of people reminiscing about drams of yesteryear, the claim of how Macallan isn’t as good as it used to be, or even the qualities of discontinued drams in comparison to their replacement. Everybody has an opinion, but I decided it was time to maybe look a bit closer at this thought, to determine if it was a myth or if the various opinions had some traction. Thankfully, after a time of buying batches of miniature whiskies at auction to get one of the bottles contained within, I’d been left with quite a selection of older miniatures which had prompted me to investigate further and compare them to their contemporaries.
Let’s look at how I assessed the drams.
1/ I endeavoured as much as possible to compare like with like. That isn’t as easy as it sounds as core ranges change. Even, as in the case of Auchroisk, the age may be the same, but the Flora and Fauna is upped to 43% and is exclusively bourbon cask maturation, unlike the Singleton’s sherry cask finishing. In the case of the Benromach, there wasn’t a comparable 12 year old in the modern range, apart from a cask strength, so I used a 10 year old. As far as possible I used a contemporary dram if like for like wasn’t available.
2/ I never tasted blind. I know this may seem to invalidate my testing, but I don’t have coloured glasses, and besides, having seen the bottles before I tasted, it was often easy to see what one was the older or younger sample.
The other thing that made blind tasting pointless was the fact that I was using miniatures for a lot of my tastings. Due to the seal area / liquid volume ratio, plus the older drams suffered on occasion from old bottle effect, which made the older dram easy to identify. I mitigated this in most examples by letting the dram rest for 30 mins or adding water. It has to be said the usual taste was a musty, cardboard taste. I think that is common for older screw top seals, as a Glenturret 12 y.o sample I’ve had from a full sized 1980’s bottling was similarly affected. So if I was always able to easily identify the old or new bottlings by taste or smell, being tasted blind would make no difference.
3/ I’m fully aware that I cannot say that one is better than the other. That is because taste is subjective. However, my plan was if I could perhaps establish a pattern across the 43 samples I tried, there would be more grounds for coming to a conclusion whether whisky was better in the past or not
4/ I tried as hard as I could to get at least one whisky from each region, however Campbeltown and the Lowland regions have had tiny amount of distilleries for some time. This means it is harder to get old and new samples without purchasing full size bottles. This was going to lead to expense that I just could not justify. The reason I tested more Highland or Speyside malts is solely because samples were easier to obtain. Plus that’s where the majority of Scottish distilleries with visitor centres are located, thus more likely to have a 5cl release.
Cost has been a limiting factor. Some of the older minis were expensive. I had seen the older Aberlour 10 retail at £40 for 5cl. The Springbank I had to pay £40 for a batch of minis just for this one and another £60 for a full sized modern bottle so I could have one Campbeltown sample. The Highland Park 1980’s sample was £46 all in, but being 10cl, I’m going to be able to share that with a whisky friend who probably hasn’t tasted much, if any early Highland Park.
The 10 year old Macallan wasn’t cheap either. I had planned to use my 70cl bottle from the 1990’s that was damaged in a flood at my storage locker. It is still worth about £350 as a drinking bottle. In one way, I’m glad COVID restrictions stopped me retrieving it from the locker, as I’ve been able to get a 1980’s 10 year old sample instead. However, that was the same price as the Highland Park and only 5cl. So my whisky loving friends are going to have to wait a bit longer before they gets a sample of my damaged bottle.
So, no expense spared.
You can get links to each review by clicking on the distillery name which will open in a new page.
It can be seen that if you read each review that there were 14 wins for the older drams, 2 for the newer drams, three draws and one void. However it is not as simple to say that older drams are definitely better just looking at tally marks, as we have to take into account the subjective nature of taste. In the majority of times I picked the earlier era of whisky, this is due to the whisky in the older sample being more accessible, easier to drink, more pleasant notes or a better mouthfeel or finish. In the cases where it was hard to decide, it was often a gnat’s knee cap of difference, but a notable difference at least that I feel I’d be able to pick out on subsequent tasting.
Whisky and its distillation does change over time; it’s almost inescapable. There is little way of guaranteeing absolute continuity when staff come and go, changes in barley or yeast, changes in the time to ferment or distill, or even the temperature in the worm tubs can all have subtle differences. An example which you may not find likely but is 100% true occurred in the heat experienced during the summer of 2018. Dalwhinnie distillery had to stop production not because they had a lack of water, but they could not cool the spirit properly in the worm tubs due to the warmer water source, making the spirit character change too much. It makes me wonder how the spirit that was created just before they decided to stop will show through in bottling, though most likely it will end up in a blend.
One of the things I really noticed was that a couple of the newer drams had a very thin mouthfeel, or less intensity of flavour. The Glenlivet 12 totally seemed to lack a finish. I was able to communicate with a distiller who was able to give me a few pointers. Being honest, this is not limited to one distillery and it is unfair I suppose to name Glenlivet who have produced and continue to produce some great spirit. The answer confirmed a lot of my thoughts, but was put in a more succinct way. I’m going to add a bit more meat to the bones of what he told me so this is not quoted verbatim, but is also reflecting a situation that hasn’t exactly been a secret.
It has been no great surprise to hear that the distilleries have been facing a rapid demand for stocks, and as thus older stocks have been depleted. Aged whisky just cannot be produced on demand, so brands have had to make decisions on meeting that demand with stock available. A source in the industry once told me last year that a well known premium brand had a 12 year old whisky that once had an average age of 14-15 years old when you looked at the vatting. Nowadays its average age is 12 years old, and lacks the richness that it once had. Clue: – it is one of the distilleries that I tasted as part of this series. It isn’t limited to that brand either, as the distiller I spoke to while doing a review of one of these spirits said that this is common throughout the industry; a detail that has been mentioned to me by a few people in the industry. This may explain why so often the new era whiskies don’t have the same depth of character that older whiskies can provide. Distilleries just don’t have the same catalogue of aged barrels to pull from, and may preserve the older and higher quality stock for their more premium releases.
In my research, it was hinted that the quality of wood used has taken a backward step. When tasting whiskies of previous eras, most notably the sherry cask ones, the casks are not the same as before. Sherry ceased to be exported in casks in the early 1980’s meaning that source of casks was no longer available. Solera casks are not suitable for whisky production, as the Bodegas want as little wood influence as possible. Distilleries have been forced to season casks with sherry, and while you may get the taste, it is my belief that it isn’t as successful as having the real thing. Of course, some distilleries spend a lot of money getting their wood right, but some also may not concentrate on this to the same level.
The cask quality issue continues when it was mentioned to me was the general make up of casks in a vatting isn’t as good as it used to be. In order to perhaps lower production costs and increase the amount of whisky available, there are probably not as many first fill casks in the vatting of single malts. There are probably a lot more 2nd and 3rd fill casks getting used in any vatting. This may not be noticed in some whiskies, but most notably I noticed that the newer Aberlour and the Glenlivet I had tasted seem to have very thin bodies and next to no finish. The distiller I spoke to mentioned the fact less 1st fill casks being used will probably explain it. The wood has less to give, with less and less flavour components being imparted to the spirit. Indeed, I was recently shown a 9 year old 4th fill cask sample from a well known Speyside distillery, and to be honest it wasn’t much more than dirty dishwater in colour. One can assume next to no cask influence unless it is left for a couple of more decades at least.
It often leaves me wondering if production times have changed too, with fermentation and still times being made shorter to increase the production capacity where physical alterations are not possible or too expensive. With the boom in whisky sales showing little sign of slowing at the moment, the pressure is on distilleries to produce or lose market share. The more traditional distilleries also have the burden of having to supply produce for blends, which are in just as much, if not more demand than single malts.
A Personal Choice?
It is obvious if you look through the results of my reviews, that I do think there are good grounds for suggesting that whisky from previous eras are better in some cases. Of course it could be argued that this statement is dependent entirely on my own subjective point of view and taste, but that is why precisely why I deliberately tried as many whiskies as I could across each of the Scotch whisky regions. I also tried to pick some malts that I was unfamiliar with, so any bias could be ruled out. As alluded to in some of the reviews, I have always tried to find an identifiable flaw or difference that I could recognise in a blind test, in order to try and reduce the effect of simple preference. It’s not perfect but the best I could do in that circumstance.
I knew that bias would creep in. I had made my mind up that in the last comparison I did of Macallan 10 that the older Macallan would easily beat the newer dram, but I had to be honest and say that this just wasn’t the case at all. I would be telling lies if I said that one was much better than the other and doing a disservice to the quality control at Macallan. But I’ve heard from a friend who is involved in the industry that Macallan 10 was one of those whiskies that had an average age significantly higher than the age statement, so that made it expensive to produce. It was a good decision by Edrington to withdraw the age statement rather than continue with what may have been a much inferior product.
What mostly drew me to the older whiskies that I thought were better was just the depth of flavour, the length of finish, the mouth feel or just the fact that I was instantly drawn to it – that the whiskies were just so easily drinkable.
One thing that I noticed that in some cases the distiller had changed the ABV when producing the newer edition. Both Bruichladdich and Clynelish increased their core bottling to 46%, which removes the need for chill filtering. Auchroisk only upped their core to 43% in the Flora and Fauna bottling, but this also was supplemented by a change to exclusively bourbon maturation. There wasn’t a lot in the drams, but I felt the sherry finished Singleton had more character and mouthfeel than the Flora and Fauna dram. Interestingly enough, Auchentoshan had dropped their ABV to 40% from 43% but lengthened the maturation period. I personally think this was a backward step, as while I didn’t mind the 10 year old dram, I found the 12 year old was nowhere near as good and eventually was so undrinkable to me that it went down the sink.
There is one issue that we have to take into consideration was that the old bottles often suffered from the ‘old bottle effect’. I found that by leaving the drams to breathe for a while and adding a drop of water often mitigated this phenomenon but never eliminated it.
Drams that I liked or disliked
The one thing that my blog was designed to do was to encourage me to try different drams, and in this series it has forced me to drink a few whiskies that I wouldn’t normally drink. It is important to know what has gone in the past so we have a yard stick to judge the future. But is that really important? Because when it comes down to facts, all that matters is whether WE like it or not and definitely not as a result of others telling us we should like it.
The top drams that I tasted as a result of this series would definitely be –
Glenfarclas 10 (old)
Clynelish 14 Flora and Fauna
Glenrothes 8 (2007 – The Malt Cask Co.)
The drams I did not really enjoy
Auchentoshan 12 – so bad I couldn’t finish it
Aberlour 12 (New) – no finish whatsover
Glenlivet 12 (New) – poor mouthfeel and no finish.
The Final Caveat
Of course, this cannot be the final word. We have to keep an eye on what is happening in the whisky world. As I type this out, Glendronach have reportedly already removed the Non Chill Filtered Statement from their 15 year old bottling. Why they would need to do this when it is not necessary to chill filter a whisky at 46% I don’t know, unless they are thinking about lowering the ABV or are actually going to chill filter at 46% which will result in a change in flavour. It is a backward step, so this is why I maintain it is always good to keep an eye on the past so we can know that we indeed have tasted good whisky.
The final caveat is that we cannot stop here; we need to compare the whisky of the future to the whisky we have now to see if there is a progression. I think it is increasingly obvious that the production of whisky is in the hands of accountants as much as it is in the care of Master Blenders. We have to see that producers maintain or increase standards, or we risk going down the route that Auchentoshan went or that Glendronach seems to be heading. The internet has made information much more easier to obtain and share, with the result that today’s whisky enthusiast is much more informed and will not easily accept a reduction in standards.
Whoever wants to do the comparison of the next era of whisky against this era is welcome to do it – I’m done!
I’d like to thank everybody who has helped or encouraged me to complete this series. It has been an expensive labour of love, both financially, on time and emotionally. If you liked this article, can I ask that you share it, so it makes my work seem more worthwhile. And of course I will welcome all comments about this; it would be great if this generated some discussion in the community.