It’s not about the birds and bees

Flora and Fauna whisky explained.

Regular readers of my whisky blog would have seen me mention the Flora and Fauna range of whiskies. In fact I refer back to it quite often, but there is good reason to, as it is a range of whiskies that is almost unique.

the benrinnes flora and fauna label

The range was started in 1991 by DCL, which later became United Distillers, a company formed by the merger of DCL and Arthur Bell, both owed by Guinness. Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan in 1997 and became known as Diageo. In 1998 United Distillers merged with International Distillers Vinters, and in 2001 became known as Diageo Scotland. Of course, in this tale, there was much dodgy dealings, as there was share trading fraud to enable Guinness to take over DCL, which saw 4 men going to prison.

No chance of a dram here – thefix.com

To make the next bit of history easier to understand, we’ll just refer the distiller as Diageo.

During the 1980’s, scores of distilleries were mothballed, some never to re-open again. Diageo closed 11 distilleries in 1983 alone. But come the 90’s things were starting to change, and single malts became more prominent. What was noticed was that although brown spirits, including blended whisky was declining, single malts were starting to perform strongly. This led to the formation of the Classic Malts, a series that still exists today, but is expanded. The original Classic Malts were Glenkinchie, Lagavulin, Talisker, Oban, Cragganmore and Dalwhinnie. These used to sit behind bars on a small plinth, and this brought the concept of regionality of single malts, and their different styles.

Classic Malts – Catawiki Auctions

There was a problem however – most of the distilleries Diageo now owned didn’t have their own bottling. If you were lucky, you may have seen an independent release, but for the overwhelming majority of whiskies, their output went straight into blended whiskies. This is something that continues, as 90% of malt production is for blends. This meant there was a niche available to showcase the malt distilleries in the Diageo portfolio, and this saw the start of a range from distilleries very few knew about, some of which perhaps still are only in the knowledge of whisky buffs.

The range started out with 22 whiskies, which weren’t mass marketed, but only sold at their visitor centres or limited distribution. Initially these were – Aberfeldy, Aultmore, Balmenach, Benrinnes, Bladnoch, Blair Athol, Caol Ila, Clynelish, Craigellachie, Dailuaine, Dufftown, Glendullan, Glenlossie, Inchgower, Linkwood, Mannochmore, Mortlach, Pittyvaich, Rosebank, Royal Brackla, Speyburn and Teaninich. All of these were initially released with a wooden box, but this eventually changed to a carton in some cases, and nothing at all in others. All were bottled at 43% abv.

Full collection – whiskyauctioneer.com

This was unheard of in the industry, but in one fell swoop, each Diageo malt whisky distillery had a bottling which its workers could taste and show off to their friends and family. The communities around the distilleries could sample some of the produce. People became aware of individual distillery characters. It was certainly a step forward.

The range never originally had a name. Flora and Fauna was actually coined by Michael Jackson (The late whisky writer and not the musical child abuser) who noted that each bottle in the range had a picture of either a plant or animal which could be found near to the distillery in question. It has stuck, even to the point that people within Diageo still refer as this as Flora and Fauna.

Known for his love of young boys, not whisky – google.com

In 1997, there were 9 of the range released as cask strength bottles. These were Aberfeldy, Aultmore, Blair Athol, Caol Ila, Clynelish, Dailuaine, Linkwood, Mortlach and Rosebank. These were numbered bottles and some are now extremely rare.

Cask Strength editions – scottishdelight.com

Fast forward to 2001. By this time, Aberfeldy, Aultmore, Balmenach, Bladnoch, Craigellachie, Royal Brackla and Speyburn distilleries had been sold. In fact, the story goes that Speyburn only produced a single run of Flora and Fauna whisky, and this is why it is the rarest of the lot. Pittyvaich was closed and demolished in 1993, and in the same year Rosebank ceased production. Bottlings continued until the stock ran out, apart from Speyburn and Balmenach, where the stock was part of the sale. 4 more malts were added to the range – Auchroisk, Glen Elgin, Glen Spey and Strathmill. These never had boxes or cartons.

Over time, some of the remaining bottlings in the series were discontinued in favour of a proper distillery release. Caol Ila, Clynelish, Glen Elgin, Dufftown, Mortlach and Glendullan now have their own distinct brand. Of the remaining 11 that are produced, Flora and Fauna is the only official release, with the exception of occasional Manager Drams or Special Releases. Only Blair Athol has a visitor centre and the remaining releases remain obscure distilleries in their own right.

While this is a great range, it isn’t without its drawbacks. At 43%, although is isn’t stated, you can bet your bottom dollar, each one of these whiskies has been chill filtered, the process which sees the impurities removed from the spirit that makes it go temporarily cloudy when water or ice is added. Unfortunately I believe this also removes the full depth of flavour.

The other downside is the likelihood that E150a (caramel colouring) has been added. This is to give colour consistency, but when one looks at the Dailuaine and Benrinnes, it has to be wondered if it has been added to emphasise the sherried casks used for maturation.

What else should be know about Flora and Fauna? Although 11 bottles are still supported by Diageo, it remains to be seen how long it will last in its current format. Benrinnes was originally distilled using a partial triple distillation up to 2007. As this is a 15 year old whisky, I’d suggest that we may see the Benrinnes discontinued in 2022, or at least a change in flavour. I do hope it continues, as Benrinnes is one of my favourites in the range. I’ve also tasted independent releases of Benrinnes, and it’s absolutely fantastic.

Another problem with this range is its availability. It is harder to find unless you visit a Diageo distillery, or a specialist whisky shop. Dailuaine is getting harder to find, which is also a great whisky – its my second favourite whisky in the range, but its a close neighbour of Benrinnes.

********GEEK FACT********

Dailuaine was the first distillery to have the pagoda style roof on the kiln roof (correctly known as a Doig Ventilator, named after the architect Charles C, Doig).

All the wooden boxes

As a small batch release, and not aggressively marketed, it isn’t always easy to get a hold of, but if you see one, try it. It almost has the status of a cult whisky collection, and certainly has a great visual appeal with the understated labels. Even the wooden boxes look good, and they are something you don’t see often on releases unless you pay for a premium malt. It is easy to see how this was ditched in favour of the cardboard box, then onto nothing at all.

The collection is highly collectable, but you need to be careful, as bottles start to get harder to get, the price will go up. All of the currently available bottles currently retail in the UK at under £65, with the majority of them under £50. The Dailuaine is the most expensive one, but remember it is the oldest one available at 16 year old.

If you go for a collection, try to remember my previous advice on collecting a series – if you can’t complete it, the price will be affected. The Royal Brackla, Craigellachie, Aultmore, Aberfeldy and Rosebank often trade above £250 a bottle. If they have the wooden box, expect to pay more. 16 of the bottles in the range have a cream / white capsule, and this denotes a first edition, which will increase the price more. Some of the rarer white caps trade between £300 – £800.

And here it gets complicated. If you choose to go for the white caps, you may end up with a secondary collection. I’ve 14 of the 16 white caps available, and when I get a white cap bottle, the black cap gets moved to my secondary collection. My secondary collection also includes a few white caps I picked up at a good price, although I am missing a Rosebank to have the 26 bottles in my secondary collection. Certainly this takes up a large portion of my storage unit.

Most of the rarer white caps.

The Speyburn is the holy grail, and will cost on average between £1000 and £1800. At the time of writing in Sept 2019, the Speyburn set a new Flora and Fauna record by breaking the £2000 barrier, being sold at a Whisky Hammer auction for £2050. Some lucky punter has just paid after auction fees £2300 for a bottle that cost less than £40 on release.

The rest of the black caps

******** Important note ********

If you have a box that has bottle with a label on the back that includes the UK duty paid image, then that bottle is not original to the box, and is from a later batch. This is not correct for collectors and could affect price.

Glenlossie showing its rear label

A white cap bottle should have a wooden box with it, but depending on the bottle, this will not vary price too much.

*******************************

And what for the future? I have contacted Diageo, asking if the Benrinnes F&F will be discontinued, whether the rumours of Dailuaine being discontinued are true, and what the future of the Flora and Fauna range is likely to be. Diageo were very good in their communication, but sadly declined to make any comment, as any information would be commercially sensitive. I can understand this, though reading between the lines, you can sort of imagine it may be coming to an end. The collection has been on the go for almost thirty years, and that alone is a quite an accolade. Very few brands nowadays last as long unchanged in the world of single malts. I suppose the whisky that is still available in the shops now will probably be slightly different to those first released, but it has been a great run although the end is probably a matter of time. And then this is where the prices will increase further.

In the meantime, although the remaining whiskies aren’t the best whiskies in the world, they are still a good dram, despite only being 43%, coloured and chill filtered. As I say so often, get them while you can, and certainly if you don’t want to collect them, certainly try the 11 that are still available in the shops. Benrinnes, Dailuaine, Auchroisk and Inchgower would be my go-to in the range, with Strathmill and Blair Athol next. I’ll review them as I get a chance, as I have a few samples left.

Slainte!


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