Taking an Inch doesn’t mean you’ll get a Mile.

Taste Review #70 – Inchgower 14 Flora and Fauna

It’s been a couple of months at least since I’ve reviewed a Flora and Fauna release. Since I’ve managed to bottle kill my full size Benrinnes Flora and Fauna, it was time to move onto the next one and I had a choice – Pittyvaich or Inchgower. It was a simple decision in the end as I’d already reviewed a Pittyvaich thus Inchgower it was.

Inchgower is one of those distilleries that has quite an anonymous life. Currently owned by Diageo, the distillery provides most of its output for blending, although independent bottlings are much more available. This malt is a constituent part of the Bells blend, but don’t let that count against our single malt experience.

The distillery sits just outside the Morayshire coastal town of Buckie and was founded in 1871 by Alexander Wilson. The Wilson family went bankrupt, leaving the Buckie Town Council to purchase the distillery in 1936. As far as I can tell this is the only example of a local authority in the U.K. owning a distillery. In 1938 the site was bought by Arthur Bell & Sons Ltd to provide malt whisky for its blends. Arthur Bell & Sons were later bought by Guinness and after various takeovers and mergers, the distillery came a part of the Diageo empire.

Inchgower isn’t a big distillery – it has 2 wash and 2 spirit stills, and only outputs 1.99 million litres annually. It has quite a short fermentation of 46 hours which should give a more nutty sort taste to the spirit. The distillery location isn’t that far away from the mouth of the River Spey, giving this Speyside whisky a coastal tang.

Inchgower unfortunately does not have a visitors centre, but the local area has some great scenery. The weather in coastal Morayshire experiences a local microclimate, something that was instrumental in setting up the nearby RAF bases at Kinloss and Lossiemouth as training bases. Buckie a fishing town and although there isn’t that much to do there, it is one end of the Speyside Way, a long distance trail that follows the River Spey, often utilising the former railway line that ran between Craigellachie and Aviemore. The Moray Coastal path also passes through the town, and it’s a short walk to the impressive Spey Bay Railway viaduct if you are in the area.

Let’s now take a wander to taste the whisky in question.


Inchgower 14 Flora & Fauna

Details

Region – Speyside; Age14 y.o; Strength – 43%; Colour – Pale Straw; Nose – Quite light and fresh. Malty, biscuity, straw, soft oak with a touch of brine there in for good measure. Vanilla, light toffee notes; Palate – Grapefruit, tannic, apple, ginger, grapes / white wine. Nutmeg. Vegetal in places, but this disappears with the addition of water. Lightly waxy in mouthfeel but not consistent – felt a bit light on occasion. ; Finish – Quite short with a nicer balance of fruit at the end to counteract the bitter tannins from the wood. Notes of brine at the end. Tempers nicely when water added.


Inchgower 14 – the dram

Conclusions

Just because it is a component of Bells, don’t judge it by the same yardstick. I’ve been lucky and enjoyed this dram from the start, but samples given to friends have been a bit of a mixed bag. Some didn’t like it, some did. Although it is not that a complex malt, it can be quite light, and the vegetal note I found could put people off. This could be due to the sharply inclined Lyne arms between the still and condenser allowing the meatier parts of the spirit to leave the still. I added water and let it sit for 10 minutes and this took a lot of the less desirable notes away.

Being a coastal distillery, the brine is present, and coupled with a light waxiness this reminds me of another Diageo coastal distillery on the opposite side of the Moray Firth, Clynelish. That too was bottled as a part of the Flora and Fauna range and also as a 14 year old, but has been re-released as a stand alone bottle and the abv upped to 46%, which may give Inchgower a boost if they decide to do the same.

I enjoy the lightness of this dram; in the past I’ve had grassy notes from this which I didn’t get this time. I did get a straw note which although that’s dried grass, it isn’t the same. It leads me to ask myself what has changed – my sense of taste as I age or is it the whisky making process? Whiskies do change over time, so it’s a point worth considering.

Available at less than £50 a bottle, this isn’t an expensive dram, and is worth what I paid for it. There are bitter components in here that may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s not that bad. I’d suggest trying this alongside an independently produced bottle to get a decent comparison.

Inchgower isn’t that rare but it’s not one you will see in every whisky shop, but a specialist retailer should be able to get it for you. At 43%, chill filtered and a dose of colouring means you may find better value from an independent bottle, as these are much more likely to have a higher strength, be non-chill filtered and have no colouring added.

I do recommend this dram, but I acknowledge it may not be something everybody will love. The title is a play on the phrase if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile, and while you may get the Inch(gower) but you might not enjoy the full mile of this whisky journey. It shouldn’t stop you giving it a go. After all, I like it, and surely others do. Try it in a whisky bar if you see it is available or alternatively you can get 3cl miniatures from the Whisky Exchange or Master of Malt websites.

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

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Scotty’s Drams encourages responsible drinking. To find out the facts about drink, and where to find help if you need it visit Drinkaware.co.uk by clicking on the link.

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Easy as A, B, C, D

How to determine what is worthwhile to purchase.

How do you pick your whisky? Do you pick a cheap or known brand after staring at the bottles on the shelves in Tesco, desperately trying to make a boring trip for the bread and bog roll that little bit more exciting? Or are you like a kid in a candy store when in a specialist whisky retailer, wildly trying to guess what is good and wanting to buy it all? I’m both, and will often take a punt based on recommendations or knowledge of the distillery.

But based on a couple of questions asked by a follower of this page why age and abv makes a difference, I have decided to write some more words of advice. The concept I am going to follow is from a fellow whisky blogger, Roy at Aqvavitae.com who has done a useful guide on this, and its the concept of A, B, C, D. While I expand on this, anything I write here is my own words and thoughts and not plagiarism. This is because what we are going to discuss is common to all whisky fanatics, and some duplication is inevitable. Certainly Roy’s system is a very useful one.

The A, B, C, D’s of whisky in choosing a bottle are

A = Age Statement

B = Bottling Strength

C = Chill Filtration

D = Dye

In essence, you can read the label on the bottle, and by applying the ABCD principle, it will assist you in sorting the whisky wheat from the chaff.

In the first section, this week we will look at the age statement.

What is an age statement?

The age statement is the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. Under the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009, a spirit has to be matured for at least 3 years in an oak cask as part of the rules to be called Scottish Whisky.


12 years old proudly displayed


In order to produce a range of whisky of thousands of bottles, casks of various ages and types will be ‘married’ together to make up a consistent flavour profile, and is repeatable across the batches. This blending is still a single malt, as it is the produce of one distillery only.

The age statement is the youngest whisky in the recipe, regardless of the volume that whisky in the mix.

A single cask whisky will normally always have an age or vintage attached to it, as it is the produce of one cask only.

Why is age important?

Age is important as it tells us the youngest whisky in our mix. It is a benchmark of value. Although I would imagine that the bulk of a whisky bottle will contain liquid of the age stated, I also know that there will be older whisky in there. But we won’t know the proportions of the mix, unless we have inside knowledge. So the age statement gives us a benchmark to a minimum value.

Is there an alternative to the age statement?

Yes. Some whiskies have a year on them, also known as a vintage. This is the year that all the whisky in the bottle was distilled. This doesn’t always tell us the age, unless the bottle says when it was distilled and bottled. Some do also carry a stated age. This is sometimes the case with single cask bottlings. Otherwise to tell how old the spirit is, you will have to know when that bottling was released to have an idea of the age.


Vintage and Age Statements together


What is a Non Age Statement? (NAS)

A whisky that has no vintage or age on it is known as a Non Age Statement. They will just have an edition name such as Talisker Storm, Macallan Genesis, Ardmore Legacy, Glenmorangie Signet.


No Age Statement on this single grain


Why use a Non Age Statement?

NAS whisky is produced mainly because of one fact. Due to the rise in popularity of whisky, there is now a shortage of aged whiskies for the drinks companies to make their blends, or to make up the single malt recipes. So they have to use younger spirit.

The problem is, due to the SWA regulations about stating an age, even if there is a drop of young whisky in a bottle that otherwise has an average age of 12 years, if it has a younger whisky in the vatting, that is the age in the bottle, regardless of the average age.

And here is the issue that the manufacturer is trying to overcome – what would you reach for on the shelf? Would it be a whisky that is largely 12 year old spirit that has to be labelled as 3 year old due to a tiny proportion of young whisky in the mix, or a bottle that has a minimum of 12 year old whisky in it? Pretty much the same drams, but the perception is people will go for the older labelled whisky.

The other things that companies may use younger stock for is to perhaps aim for a price point or to stretch out a range. The young whisky in my mind is used as a filler spirit.

Essentially the whisky companies are trying to avoid stating the fact they are using young spirit.

Is using NAS an issue?

While the companies are trying to avoid consumers knowing the fact they are using young spirit, this shouldn’t be a problem, as young whisky doesn’t mean poor quality all the time. But younger whisky is cheaper, and if you put a young age on the bottle, the manufacturer will maybe struggle to charge the price for the older whisky that is in the mix. Of course price is a good guide as to what is in an NAS whisky, but the problem is this :- you don’t know the proportion of cheap whisky in it. Young whisky also has less cask influence and is more spirit led. If the new make is poor, the young whisky will be awful as the cask hasn’t had time to condition the spirit into something palatable.

If it is a cheap bottle, there is the clue, yet Macallan regularly sell NAS for hundreds of pounds, but you have no guarantee of what’s in there. Again the price is the guide, but there is no guarantee of the value you are getting unless you drink it to find out.

How many of us would be able to tell the proportions of the age by taste? The more experienced can, but I personally think it’s madness to pay hundreds on NAS whisky. This is more an issue if buying on the secondary market – a £500 bottle probably contains £250 of whisky. Pay more on the secondary market as a collector or drinker then you are paying for hype, packaging and are possibly caught in the cycle of supply and demand.

Therefore only an age statement sets the benchmark of what we can expect in the bottle.

Another YouTube vBlogger, Ralf Mitchell (ralfy.com) refuses to review NAS whisky. This is a man who certainly knows his fine spirits. He’s reviewed 3 year old drams though, and given positive feedback, which is a sign young spirit isn’t unnecessarily bad, but he does push that the age statement is the sign of a measurable quality.

Yes, my whisky friends, he is not wrong. I often wonder what the age statement on Jura Journey would be…. Point proven.

So young or NAS whisky is rubbish then?

No. Not by any means. I’ve had some cracking drams that were under 8 years old (See my Octomore Review – only 5 years old), and I’ve had disappointing drams at 12 years old in the past. For a review in the next month or so, I sampled a Glenlivet NAS, and I kept wanting to have another. It wasn’t even an expensive one, but had an unusual finishing. You’ll have to wait and see what it was. The age statement is no absolute guarantee that you are going to enjoy yourself when you have a nip.

Personally, I’ll give kudos to a distillery that are confident enough in their product to be up front about the age, regardless of how young it is. The simple fact is you will eventually have to taste to find out.

Read reviews before you buy. Try in a whisky bar. Or just take the plunge and buy a bottle. It is up to you if you want to risk the cost, as you are then relying on your knowledge of the brand and are at the mercy of marketing. But one way of looking at it is that a decent bottle is usually only 27 more nips away….. However, the vast majority of Single Malt NAS whiskies are very good. You just don’t fully know the value. Age is only a guide.


NAS but there’s 30 year old whisky in here. Not crap.


I have tasted many NAS statement whiskies, and in many cases have been satisfied with what I’ve had, but in common with Roy from Aqvavitae, I’ve found something lacking. In some cases they just feel engineered, tinkered with, or something just not right. Or, they taste exactly what you’d expect from a young whisky, raw, rough around the edges, bit of a let down. That’s not to say that the distillery is bad – it just might need a couple more years maturation. As an example, see my review of Kilchoman Machir Bay. It is a young whisky as it isn’t an old distillery, but this has the making of a great whisky and I do look forward to trying other expressions in the future.


NAS can hide poorer whiskies


One has to take their hat off to distilleries that start up and don’t use NAS statements to get the money coming in. That’s why I can’t wait for Ballindalloch to eventually release bottles. They are waiting until it’s ready. Being a small distillery, supply will be limited, so perhaps the price may be higher, but it will be worth it.


Summary

A vintage or age statement is a benchmark to help us evaluate the quality and value of a whisky. To be fair, some age stated whiskies can still be disappointing, but at least you have a clue as to what you are buying with a stated age. Don’t be afraid to try NAS bottles – there are rewards to be had. I’ve tried Laphroig Select, Dalmore King Alexander III, Allt-a-Bhainne and enjoyed them all. Perhaps not as good as their age statement equivalent. Remember that an age statement is only one method of looking for a good whisky. If you taste it, your palate should be your guide and there is no issue if you prefer an NAS expression. Each to their own, and drinking pleasure is what whisky is all about.

But, when comparing whiskies on a shelf, there are other clues to look for on a bottle – the next one being bottling strength.

Slainte Mhath

Scotty

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Scotty’s Drams encourages responsible drinking. To find out the facts about drink, and where to find help if you need it visit Drinkaware.co.uk by clicking on the link.


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When age is more than a number

Whisky myths smashed #1

Ask 100 people what makes a good whisky, or any other spirit, and you’ll get 100 different answers. Some of the answers may be very similar, but very few will be completely the same. A whole range of opinions will be given, such as age, price, the distillery, whether or not it is blended

What makes the best whisky? There is no easy answer to that, and indeed as everybody has a different opinion, any answer will be totally subjective. But how do we determine what is the best whisky? Many will put a lot of faith in the age of the whisky, but with the proliferation of whiskies bearing no age statements means that it gets harder to tell.

So how do we know if we are getting a quality drink, or are we just getting ripped off? Is older and expensive better?

Only two have age statements. What bottle is the best one?

To get started, (and this is solely my opinion) the age of a whisky is absolutely no guarantee of how good it will be. Quite simply, the age will give an indication of what to expect from the whisky – it will have taken more flavours from the cask, the alcohol content may be lower and it may be comparatively smoother than a younger spirit. One of the best whiskies I have open is only 14 years old, one of the best scoring Scotch single malt (sadly now an extinguished distillery) is only 19 years old. I can think of a couple of malts I have tried at age statement which have been completely underwhelming – Dalmore 12 being one of them, yet Dalmore do make some fine malt whisky.

Many whiskies are now being released with no age statement at all. But does this mean they are the poorer relations of an aged single malt and are the distillers trying to hide something? The answer to this is Yes and No – non age statement is not necessarily worse than an age statement spirit, and yes, the distillers and blenders are trying to hide something.

To qualify my latter statement, we need to delve into the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009. I’ll keep this as brief as possible, as a story about regulations never wins you friends in a bar.

Firstly, a whisky can be called a single malt (or grain if not made from malted barley), if all the spirit in the bottle comes from the same distillery. It does not have to all be distilled at the same time. This means in any bottle of single malt, there may be whisky of various ages. The practice of blending various ages of casks is to ensure that throughout the bottling of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of bottles that the taste dies not vary between batches. This does not apply to single cask whisky, due to the very fact it’s from one cask and does not get blended in any way.

Secondly, the SWR 2009 states that whisky must be matured in oak barrels, in Scotland for a minimum of three years before it can be called whisky. Anything any younger is called New Make Spirit, or by a product name such as Aqua Vitae as an example, but the one thing it cannot be called is whisky.

Thirdly, and here we have to briefly dive into the SWR 2009 for the last time (and this being our key point), where the regulation states that any age statement on a bottle must give the age of the youngest whisky used to make up the single malt or blend.

And there it is – point three is most possibly the reason for seeing so many non age statement whiskies in the market place. The reality is distilleries are running out of aged stock.

This lack of stock has been caused by the tremendous growth in the popularity of Scotch whisky, and is not unique to Scotland either. Certainly I have read that Japan is also suffering the same issues. Around 90% of Scotch whisky is used in blends, and the need for certain stocks to make up the blends has caused huge pressure for distilleries to keep production up. The problem isn’t the capacity of the distilleries; it’s the fact that has to mature for so long, and this is a process that just cannot be hurried. The perfect storm has been created from the closure of many distilleries in the 1980’s, which has meant many stocks of these brands are now running out, then compounded by the rapid rise in popularity of single malts which started in the early 1990’s. Such is the demand for some of the whiskies that a trio of legendary closed distilleries are emerging from slumber – Port Ellen, Brora and Rosebank are all due to open within the next couple of years.

But why all the secrecy of a non age statement? Ask any person what they think the best whisky is out of a choice of a three year old or a twelve year old, and I doubt anybody would pick the younger spirit. It’s a question of image, and with the whisky market booming, nobody wants to release a whisky that will likely be rejected. And I would imagine the majority of non age statement whiskies have spirit in them less than 8 years old, and possibly younger. How many have three year old spirit in them and would this put you off if it was an age statement whisky?

I’ve 2 examples of a three year old whisky in my wee stock, a quadruple distilled Bruichladdich and a bottle from the first cask produced at Strathearn distillery. Not tasted them yet, but a younger spirit is going to be light, more raw, as the amount of interaction with the cask is going to be at an absolute minimum. However that doesn’t necessarily make it bad, and in the case of the Bruichladdich, the fact it has been distilled twice as much as normal may make it a pleasant proposition.

Bruichladdich X4+3. Quadruple distilled, three years old. Any good?

It is worth considering that non age statements are used as a tool of marketing. Of course the distillers want to maximise the purchasing of their products. And after all, how many 12 year old whiskies can you have in a range that may only have subtle differences? With an array of cask types at the disposal of the distilleries, an non-age statement lets the marketers build a brand, although differences between the whiskies may be slight to the educated palate.

So how can we tell if we are drinking a quality whisky? In my opinion, there is no true way as each person’s taste is different. We can look to the reputation of the distillery, but in that I’ve found NAS whisky from a known brand that is a total let down, with Macallan being a notable offender in this respect. Most of the recent Jura releases without age statements have been fairly disappointing, with Journey having been universally decided amongst many whisky enthusiasts as being below par. Having a half bottle myself, I didn’t think it was the age that was the issue, but the bottling strength.

To those who are well versed in whisky, they may be able to tell by the taste and mouth feel if there is an older whisky in the spirit. Although it has an age statement, the Glendronach 18 year old Allardice is quite likely to be such a dram, although the distillery themselves won’t tell you. What I can tell you is that it is delicious, and I will be reviewing that one for you when I can.

A good bet to tell if a whisky is likely to be of a decent quality, and therefore you are less likely to be left feeling cheated is to check out reviews, either on-line, in specialist whisky magazines or research via the various whisky year books that are released.

A good guide to the many distilleries.

I can heartily recommend buying the annual ‘Whisky Bible’ by Jim Murray. Now in its 15th year, this is a good starting guide for new releases as well as older ones. It is worth buying the older editions of this tome in order to build a compendium of whisky knowledge, but will always remain the opinion of one man. Mind you, it’s a man with more knowledge than me!

Bottom line is that as much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, taste is as well. Each one of us is individual and no two palates are the same but many may be similar. Does expensive and old make a better whisky? Not really if you don’t enjoy it – the value isn’t there in that respect. What may be there is the kudos of what is in the bottle, how old it is and where it came from.

My advice is to take recommendations from others; try different drams from different distilleries. Maybe pick a cask type (ie Sherry) and compare various sherried whiskies. Keep costs down by trying in a whisky bar where you are only committed to trying a nip, or consider trying miniatures first – Master of Malt, the Whisky Exchange and Drinks By The Dram are good online retailers which will sell the more unusual miniatures or samples of full size bottles.

Whatever you do – make sure you enjoy it!

Slainte Mhath!