Taste Review #75 – Clynelish 14
It gives me great pleasure to write this review. Because contained within this review is the very whisky that actually germinated the seed that was to grow into the blog that you are reading. It was in January 2019 in a hotel in Krakow, totally disillusioned about the current state of affairs in the UK, fed up of hearing political sniping on social media and wondering whether I could do something constructive with my whisky hobby that I decided to start a blog. I had no idea what I really wanted to do and knew I’d probably end up doing what everybody else does, but at least I’d have a creative outlet, something I have lacked ever since I have moved to the Speyside Region. I used to be into photography, but sadly due to personal events and work I have just not been able to make the time to do it and at least I can write a blog offshore.
It has taken far too long to get to this dram, especially given its relevence to the blog, but some good things have to wait. And when I looked into my collection of miniatures and found that I have an older version of this whisky, I just knew that it had to be the first of the drams that I used to compare old and new whisky. For the pre-amble into this series, please click on the link here….
Clynelish is a distillery that was formed out of an absolute tragedy. It was created at a time when landowners in the Highlands wanted to get rid of the tenant crofters that didn’t really make the estates much income and replace them with hill sheep farming. These were known as the Highland Clearances and were a dark stain on Scottish history. Many of the evictions where quite brutal with people getting burned out of their homes, if not to persuade them to leave then to ensure that they wouldn’t come back. Some of the most brutal evictions took place on the land owned by the Duke (and Countess) of Sutherland. It is easy to say that this happened a long time ago, but such is the depth of feeling that for many years there has been a campaign to demolish the statue of the Duke that stands on Ben Bhraggie and overlooks the area around Golspie and Brora. ‘The Mannie’ as it is often is known has had a protest against him a lot longer than Black Lives Matter. I doubt the statue will come down, and I think it should stay as a reminder to the horrific treatment of those who lost their homes, possessions and were separated from friends and family as many were forced to seek new lives in Canada, America and Australia. Just to dig the knife in, some of the land owners even charged those they were evicting for their transport overseas.
The Duke was responsible for building a railway from Golspie, close to his family seat of Dunrobin Castle which eventually terminated in Helmsdale. He also founded a few businesses in Brora; a coal mine, a brick and tile works and lastly a distillery. These were staffed by farmers who had been cleared off the land by the aforementioned clearances. They were paid in a currency that was redeemable in the local shops, also owned by the Duke which meant he received all the profit. It may be easy to understand why he wasn’t popular amongst the locals!
The Clynelish distillery was founded in 1819, with its water source being the Clynemilton Burn. It had a pair of stills and followed the usual path of eventually becoming part of DCL in 1925, which then eventually turned into Diageo. I hope you can appreciate the abbreviation of this part of the history, as it does get a bit repetitive. In the late 1960’s the original distillery was replaced by a more modern plant with 3 pairs of stills. The original distillery was mothballed for less than a year before being reactivated to help produce peated spirit. It was initially known as Clynelish B, but due to legislation that meant two distilleries couldn’t share the same name it was quickly renamed Brora. The peated spirit was necessary for two reasons; there had been a drought on Islay, meaning there was a shortage of peated spirit, then the Caol Ila distillery was partially demolished in 1972, being rebuilt in a similar fashion to Clynelish. The Brora distillery started producing less peaty spirit after 1973, finally being closed again in 1983. It is due to reopen soon after being reactivated along with another long mothballed Diageo distillery, Port Ellen.
Clynelish is well known for its waxy mouthfeel, something I do enjoy. The story goes that during the annual silent season, the waxy build up in the feints receiver was cleaned out. The character of the spirit changed overnight. It was then appreciated that this waxy gunk gave positive qualities to the final product, so now the waxy build up is replaced after the end of the cleaning process.
The stills at Clynelish are unusual, in that the Spirit stills are larger than the wash stills. This will help maximise the copper contact the spirit has, helping to take the more undesirable compounds out. It is a coastal malt, there can be fruity, grassy, brine and waxy notes. But how does this compare between the two malts I have chosen to taste for this review?
Clynelish 14 Flora & Fauna
Region – Highland Age – 14 years Strength – 43% Colour – Jonquiripe Corn (0.4) Cask Type – Mostly Bourbon Colouring – Yes Chill Filtered – Yes Nose -light floral toffee, vanilla, solvent / waxy, honey, lemon, light hint of smoke. Brine. Palate -lightly waxy spirit arrives on the palate, sweet oak spiciness tingles on the tongue but does not dominate. Sweet, peppery, creamy, fading off into apricots. Finish – long, gentle, pleasing and surprisingly sweet to begin with, fading into a building bitterness and a slight brine profile.
Clynelish 14 O.B
Region – Highland Age – 14 years Strength – 46% Colour -Yellow Gold (0.5) Cask Type – Mostly Bourbon Colouring – Yes / Not stated Chill Filtered – No Nose -a whiff of red apple peel, honey, vanilla, malt, a hint of polish and brine. Palate -quite soft and light with a distinct wariness that coats the mouth, waxy red apples, a warming Heather honey with cinnamon and lemon. A very faint whiff of peat. Finish – Quite a long finish, oak bitterness and a hint of smoke and brine
Both are very good whiskies in their own right. Like has been done at Glen Elgin, the Flora and Fauna bottling was discontinued and the distillery given its own unique bottling. However, where Diageo have got it right with the Clynelish reboot was that they have boosted that strength to 46% and taken away the dreaded chill filtration, or at least most of it. The Glen Elgin OB was kept at 43%. Being at the higher abv gives the drinker the chance to experience the dram with more power and yet still be able to dilute it to taste the flavours at different layers.
Generationally speaking, the Flora and Fauna bottling isn’t a world away from the OB. This bottling was started in 1991 and discontinued in the mid 2000’s, so it is hard to say that it is from an earlier era. However, there was distinct differences. The Flora and Fauna bottling was most definitely sweeter and I found it to be less waxy. Despite having what I would presume to be the same production process bar the bottling dilution, the Flora and Fauna was definitely the nicer of the two to drink. I did try to dilute the OB to 43%, or at least dilute it slightly, but it didn’t open up as much as the Flora and Fauna did without any dilution.
However, this is not to say that the OB is a poor whisky. I enjoyed both very much, and would happily have either in my drinking collection. But for me, the older bottling clinches it. The depth of the sweetness was the deciding factor.
Oh, there is one thing more that is similar between the two bottlings. Both carry a picture of a Wildcat on their label. The Flora and Fauna range was so called due to the illustrations of plant and Wildlife that could be found close to the distillery, and it’s nice to see that has been continued in the new bottling.
Clynelish has a visitor centre, but it may be closed due to COVID. Brora is about an hour to an hour and a half by road north of Inverness. It’s a bit of a trek, but I’d recommend a visit to the area. Sutherland is a great area with plenty to do within the Golspie / Brora locality.
Yours in Spirits
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All Photos – Authors Own