No, don’t panic, it’s still over three months until that season at the time of writing. It’ll be some time before your kids will be getting excited by a fat man in a red suit carrying a large bag. My kid gets that any time of year I put on an old pair of work overalls to do some tidying up in the garden. Just need the reindeer to finish the look.
The season that I refer to is my whisky season, where I get a free pass from her that must be obeyed to enjoy myself by doing some tours and sampling some whisky. Traditionally it is a bit busy for my work over the summer months, so I always tend to try and take breaks in September or October when the weather in Scotland can still be settled before the onslaught of winter. Whisky season for me this year involved three distillery visits and a small whisky festival.
Distillery 1 was the small and very scenic Speyside distillery. It’s on the opposite side of the River Spey from me, a short 5 minute drive. Despite living in the village for 8 years, I’ve never actually been. The tour was good enough, but I found myself as pretty much the only person on the tour who had been around a distillery before, so I just absorbed the atmosphere and the sights, plus chatted to one of my former work colleagues who is now a senior operator on the site.
Distillery 2 was Ballindalloch. I’ve visited a few times in the past and this time I redid the Art Of Whisky Making experience. Pricey at nearly £200 but still a great experience to see first hand exactly how whisky is made. Questions are encouraged, with each staff member being very knowledgeable about the process. On Thursdays it is casking day, so you get the experience of filling casks of the previous weeks spirit and then getting them stored in the warehouse. Can you master the art of ‘clocking’ your casks to ensure the bungs are always at the top? That is certainly an art!
My final distillery visit was Cragganmore. I nearly first visited this distillery in 2019, but never managed to fit it into my schedule. The tour is about an hour long, but much better than my last visit to a Diageo distillery. The tour guide this time knew a lot about the process and she kept the tour fun, interesting and engaging without pushing the company line. I even got extras from the gift shop of the rarer malts, one of which was the distillery 2016 special release of which I have a bottle. A really nice touch, one I’m very grateful for. I’d definitely recommend this tour.
Well, I’d love to say this was my last distillery visit, but I’m lying as I popped into Strathisla for a bit of retail therapy and purchased I a couple of distillery reserve collections, both the produce of sherry butts. One was a Longmorn, and another local malt that I dare not speak its name. The disappointing thing about the Pernod-Ricard distillery reserve is the fact they are often 50cl bottles. However, they are usually at cask strength and single cask. The non-single cask ones are often 70cl.
And on to the National Whisky Festival, Aberdeen. The main reason for taking the month of September off, to ensure that I got a chance to meet Nick (twitter – @ayewhisky); a fellow Aberdonian who has exiled himself to Belfast. But it doesn’t end there as I also bumped into a couple more of the Twitterati. It goes to show that it is indeed a small world. Firstly it was Steve Gray and his pal Alan, who I first met on a tour of Glendronach in June 2019, then Paul Dempsey (twitter / @whiskyweegie) who was formerly a brand ambassador for Speyside distillery but is now working for Brave New Spirits. It was also a pleasure to meet Colin Sim (Twitter @distillerybikes).
There were plenty of drams to try but I’m not even going to attempt to remember all of them but I’ll have a go –
Murray McDavid – Glenburgie 13. Sherry butt with a Sauternes 1st fill finish. 58.2%
Murray McDavid – Cambus 30. Cognac finish. 47.8%
JG Thompson Sweet Blended Whisky NAS 46%.
Brave New Spirits – The Nailed Puppet. Tormore 11. 1st and 2nd fill a bourbon. 52.6%
Benromach 10 Cask Strength. 2012 vintage. 60.2%
Speyside Distillery – Spey Tenne CS NAS Batch 4. Tawny Port Finish. 57.7%
Glenallachie – 8 y.o 46%. Sherry, Red wine matured.
White Peak – Wireworks Inaugural release 50.3%
Dalmore – cigar malt. 44%. American White Oak, Matusalem Oloroso and Cabernet Sauvignon casks.
Balblair – 15 y.o Bourbon with 1st fill sherry finish
SMWS – 4.311 “Tiptoe Through The Heather* Highland Park 13. 1st fill bourbon. 61.1% (*this is a guess as it was a scrum to get to the stand as some idiots were treating it as a public bar, and I only got a glimpse of the bottle as it was being poured. I had no chance of speaking to the guys pouring).
If anybody can help me out with the ID of the Highland Park, I’ll be grateful.
So only 10 drams. It wasn’t a lot but you do try to savour as much as you can to get the flavours and aromas, but after so much cask strength spirit, it’s impossible to really appreciate some of the drams. Plus I was constantly getting interrupted due to positive comments on my sartorial excellence with one of my specialist Hawaiian shirts. The way I’m going to choose to look at it is that we say whisky is a social drink, therefore it’s probably more important to focus on people rather than solely the whisky and trying to drink as much as you can in the allotted time.
Any stand out drams from the festival? No, not really. I was surprised at this. I was however pleasantly surprised by the Tormore, really enjoyed the sweetness of the Glenburgie and the smoothness of the Cambus. Dram of my night was probably the Tormore.
A quick pint before going our separate ways in the Howff (where I had my first proper Bourbon at age 18!), saw me back into the hotel before 10pm and thus the curtain was drawn on this years festival of whisky. Old friendships renewed, new ones made. A perfect end.
When you go to a whisky distillery or read the rear of the packaging, there is usually some story or legend connected to the distillery. For this review I manage to review two Highland whiskies from the North East of Scotland. One distillery has been wiped from the face of the earth, while one continues producing almost anonymously. One has the sad epithet of perhaps being the unluckiest distillery in Scotland and the other seems to have little story at all. But in the absence of an industry created legend, there is a story which connects the two communities associated with these whiskies. These distilleries were part of two towns on either side of the mouth of the River Deveron, namely Banff and Macduff. This tale not only connects both these towns, but also the Badenoch area in which I currently live, and later involves Scots literary titan Robert Burns. It is a tale of illegitimacy, prejudice, outlaws, treachery plus a hanging. It will also include a fiddle and a well known Scots folk song.
So, if you are intrigued, pour yourself a dram, put your feet up and let me tell you a story.
For over 300 years, Macduff residents don’t tell people from Banffthe time.
While there is only a river that separates the two towns, Banff and Macduff are very different places. Both fishing towns, for over three centuries there has been a now largely forgotten feud that has been part of Scottish folklore ever since. For if you are to look at the tower of the Doune Church in Macduff which houses the town clock, you will observe that there is a face to the east side, and one facing out north to sea. There can’t be one to the south due to the building construction but unusually there is no clock face on the west side for the people on the Banff side to see. The reason that Macduff people traditionally do not give people from Banff the time is all down to the hanging of Jamie Macpherson on the 16th November 1700.
The link to Badenoch area which happens to be the southernmost reaches of the Speyside whisky region comes from the illegitimate birth of James MacPherson (Jamie), the product of a tryst between one of the land owning Invereshie MacPherson clan and an attractive gypsy traveller woman. When his father died, the young Jamie returned to his mother’s travelling folk and soon became the Scottish equivalent of Robin Hood, embracing the vagrant lifestyle and robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Tales attest to his popularity and his skill with a sword and a fiddle, but he had a few powerful enemies – namely Lord Braco.
The Lord Braco was a rich landowner that had property around 5 miles east of Keith, in the region of Bracobrae. He’d have plenty of reasons to be vexed by Jamie Macpherson when his livestock or that of his tenants was robbed, as there is evidence that Macpherson was a reiver, a Scots word for Bandit. Being a traveller or a gypsy made it worse as since 1573 it was illegal to be a Gypsy (called Egiptians / Egyptians) in Scotland and when he was captured by Braco at the St Rufus fair in Keith, this was the charge to be put against him. At the fair, there was a skirmish to capture Jamie, and the legend was that a woman threw a blanket over him from an upstairs window ledge disabling his fighting ability for long enough that he could be captured.
Unfortunately for Jamie, the blanket was only the start of the treachery against him. The jury for his trial in Banff courthouse was never going to be unbiased, as the jury was full of people sympathetic to Braco. Judge Dunbar, also a friend of Braco, quickly found Macpherson guilty. For the charges of being an Egiptian and a vagabond the penalty was death and MacPherson was scheduled to be hung on the gallows tree along with three others.
The story goes that MacPherson played a lament on his fiddle before he was hung and once he was finished, he offered his fiddle to his fellow clan members. Nobody took it as it would betray them as being part of MacPherson’s band of vagabonds, so he smashed it over his knee, proclaiming nobody else shall play it.
It is now we come to the part where the issue of the time comes. Upon the sentence being pronounced, a friend of MacPherson rode to Aberdeen to the High Court to get the sentence overturned. Prior to the hanging, Braco saw the rider coming with the pardon, so had the town clock advanced 15 minutes so the hanging could legally take place. And this is why people in Macduff traditionally never give people in Banff the time, as they remember the injustice served to Jamie MacPherson.
The remains of the fiddle were recovered and returned to the MacPherson clan at Cluny Castle, between Newtonmore and Laggan on the A86. The fiddle is now on display in the Clan Macpherson museum in Newtonmore.
To cement the place this story has in Scots folklore, the words of the lament Macpherson played before he was hung were worked into a song by Robert Burns in 1788, known as MacPherson’s Farewell.
Farewell, ye dungeons dark and strong, The wretch’s destinie! McPherson’s time will not be long, On yonder gallows-tree.
Chorus (after each verse) Sae rantingly, sae wantonly, Sae dauntingly gaed he; He play’d a spring, and danc’d it round, Below the gallows-tree.
O what is death but parting breath? On many a bloody plain I’ve dar’d his face, and in this place I scorn him yet again!
Untie these bands from off my hands, And bring me to my sword; And there’s no a man in all scotland. But I’ll brave him at a word.
I’ve liv’d a life of sturt and strife; I die by treacherie: It burns my heart I must depart, And not avenged be.
Now farewell light, thou sunshine bright And all beneath the sky! May coward shame distain his name, The wretch that dares not die!
Sae rantingly, sae wantonly, Sae dauntingly gaed he; He play’d a spring, and danc’d it round, Below the gallows-tree.
I remember it from the popular Scots Folk singers The Corries. This was a regular tape that was played in the family car which formed at the time what I imagined to be the forerunner to modern child abuse by music, but in what may be a case of Stockholm Syndrome, I find myself tapping my foot to this. Here’s a link to the song on YouTube – MacPhersons Rant
And back to whisky!
The whisky distilleries in Banff and Macduff are also very different. One has sadly fallen silent and now no longer exists whereas the other is a more modern distillery and is still in production.
The original Banff distillery was situated at Mains of Colleonard just to the south west of Banff. In 1823 the Excise Act was passed and the first distillery at Banff was established by Major James McKilligan, who lived at Mains of Colleonard, along with two others, Mr Alex McKay and Mr William Hodge. The distillery was known as the Mill of Banff distillery and in 1826 was producing 3230 gallons of spirit.
The 2nd Banff distillery from which my sample comes from was built closer to the village of Inverboyndie and had a more reliable water source from springs on Fiskaidy Farm. Also the recently built Great North Of Scotland Railway built a branch line to Banff which passed the distillery site which made it easy to get raw materials in and whisky out. James Simpson built the new distillery in 1863, but this distillery had a very unfortunate existence involving fire and explosions. The distillery had a major fire that destroyed much of the distillery in May 1877. The distillery was rebuilt by October that year, and a fire engine was then stationed at the distillery. In 1921, a portion of the distillery was sold to Miles End Distillery Company, but by 1932, DCL bought the distillery outright for £50,000 and closed it immediately.
On the 16th of August 1941, a Luftwaffe Junkers JU88 bomber operating from Sola (now called Stavanger airport) attacked the distillery, suspecting it to be a military target associated with the nearby RAF base at Boyndie, which destroyed warehouse 12. Much stock was lost and spirit flowed into the local streams which resulted in reports of very intoxicated livestock in nearby fields. RAF Banff would be an important target as Mosquito fighter bombers based there were used for the hunting down and destruction of German shipping in the North Sea and along the Norwegian coast. In 1943, 248 Squadron moved into the distillery and remained there until the end of the war.
After the war, the distillery resumed production but its relationship with catastrophe was reignited when in 1959 an explosion happened when a coppersmith was repairing one of the stills. DCL were fined £15 for safety breaches but thankfully nobody was seriously hurt.
But by 1964, the adjacent branch line stopped carrying passengers and by 1968 had also closed completely to freight, making transport costly as at the time the distillery was still coal fired. In 1963, the coal fired stills were converted from being fed by hand to a mechanical feed. In 1970, the distillery stills were converted to oil firing.
One can only guess why DCL selected Banff for closure during the 1980’s whisky glut. Being a small distillery of a single wash still and two spirit stills, possibly needing investment and higher transport costs, the distillery closed its doors in 1983. By the late 1980’s much of the site had been dismantled with only some warehouses being left. It’s kind of appropriate for such an unlucky distillery that the last of the warehouses were destroyed by fire in 1991. Pretty ironic don’t you think? The site is now derelict with limited remains of the former buildings, and is a site begging for development. Sadly this will likely be housing. So we should maybe have a moment of remembrance as we move to take a sample of Banff whisky.
Banff 1974 Connoisseurs Choice
Region – Highland Age – VINTAGE Strength – 40% abv Colour – Burnished (1.1) Cask Type – Not known Colouring – No Chill Filtered – Not Stated Nose – Nutty, malty, green apple, pineapple, runny honey Palate – Medium mouthfeel, apples, honey, hazelnuts, slight woody notes with a fizz on the tongue. Finish – Not as short as I thought it would be. Honey, Ginger, Malt, hint of oak spices. After leaving in the glass for a while, there was a spirit burn on swallowing.
This whisky opened up quite a bit over the evening. It took me three hours to drink and by the end I could say that with the burn that developed, it was hard to believe that this sample had been so evaporated.
Macduff distillery was one of a few of ‘new’ distilleries that appeared in the early 1960’s, slightly after Tormore and Glen Keith and just before the mini boom in the mid 60’s. Unlike its closest rival, it has never suffered any similar catastrophes.
Founded by brokers that included Brodie Hepburn who also had involvement with Deanston and Tullibardine, the distillery eventually came into the ownership of William Lawson, which is the whisky making arm of Martini & Rossi. The distillery eventually expanded to have 5 stills by 1990 and two years later, Martini merged with Bacardi. This resulted in the distillery becoming part of the Dewars stable in 1995.
Traditionally, the original bottlings from the Macduff distillery have been labelled as Glen Deveron or Deveron. Independently bottled spirit is normally named Macduff. The output from this distillery is normally unpeated, with a large majority of it destined either for blending or to export. It’s apparently quite popular in Italy.
I took the opportunity to put the remains of the sample into the fridge to see if there was any Scotch Mist that would appear. None did, so chill filtering is effectively confirmed.
Region – Highland Age – 12 y.o Strength – 40% abv Colour – Amber (0.7) Cask Type – Not stated, likely Bourbon Colouring – Not Stated, probably Chill Filtered – Yes Nose – Nutty, almond like marzipan, custard, pear, salty air Palate – cream crackers, apricot, unsalted potato crisps, stewed fruit, brine. Really watery mouth feel. Finish – Short and disappointing. Brine, bitter. Stewed fruit with wood spices. Slight burn.
I have no idea of the age of this bottle but it’s contents are not that attention grabbing. I’d go as far as say this whisky tastes flat.
This was never a taste comparison. Both were whiskies from distilleries of different eras and was a good way of killing two samples in one review. It was also a good opportunity to tell a wee story of the area both distilleries originate from. Great tales are often told while nursing a dram and I hope that I be have done these stories justice.
I doubt I’ll ever own a full sized bottle of Banff whisky. It may happen if I see one at the right price but as the years go on, the remaining spirit will be diminishing as bottles get drunk. I would be amazed if there are many more complete casks in existence so this will be more and more a unicorn whisky. It made no sense to keep my sample in its bottle only to evaporate to nothing, so the best thing to do was drink it. A dram has finally made its destiny and whisky history has been drunk. And the world’s stock of Banff has decreased by 40ml or so. Another true moment of whisky history consumed.
When it comes to the Deveron I have to say that I got a shock at how flat the dram was. Of course the purpose of the distillery is mainly to provide malt whisky for blends but the dram had no strong character. It was almost as though I’d drunk an alcohol free whisky. Despite the bottle being properly sealed and no sign of evaporation with a good fill level, there was just something missing. I suppose you can’t like everything.
Without a doubt the evaporated Banff which was originally bottled at 40% also was the far superior dram.
As I start to write this article I’m currently returning to Scotty’s Drams HQ from Poland on the train between Glasgow and the Highlands. For those of you who haven’t been here from the start, the blog had its genesis in Krakow after I decided to change direction with my interest in whisky and to concentrate on something other than Brexit that was flooding social media.
I never managed any whisky this time in Poland, though a couple of bottles of Krupnik were demolished celebrating my wife’s birthday. It’s been some time since I’ve sat at home and enjoyed a whisky so as I travel back I’m thinking of what I could have from the selection I already have open or the numerous samples I’ve amassed. It always seems the amount of samples always goes up and not down, and while away I’ve been bad and have ordered more. This time it’s mostly world whiskies to maybe expand my outlook. I’ve not even reviewed an Irish whiskey yet, though this is on the cards for a change. I’ve a bottle of Waterford that I was gifted, but I’m at the point that if I open a full bottle, then I have to kill another.
The only bottle I have currently near the bottle kill stage is a Daftmill 2006 Winter. It was a hard bottle to get hold of, and I had to time it carefully on the secondary market to avoid paying the flipping premium. I know the whisky wasn’t worth the vastly inflated prices that Daftmill often sees at auction, but having had a sample previously I really wanted a bottle as I enjoyed the whisky a great deal.
It was while contemplating other whisky matters such as how a bottle changes from the initial pour to the last pour, it struck me that for this Daftmill that I couldn’t tell you, simply because I’ve had hardly any of it. I’ve been doing some calculations, and from what I can remember I’ve been lucky to have to have had 5 x 25ml measures. I’ve given most of it away to friends and colleagues, and I’m left having paid significantly over the £95 RRP and have had hardly any of it.
There is a train of thought that whisky isn’t whisky until it’s shared. I’m sorry, I just don’t subscribe to that thought for one second. Not because I’m a tight Aberdonian, but because it will always be the same whether I share it or not. What I have done is given people a chance to sample a whisky that most people had almost zero chance to taste. And despite Daftmill having more regular releases, the small scale of them still means most never will. But has the whisky changed since my first taste of this bottle?
Thus once I had finished the bottle, I have to say that in my opinion there wasn’t really much change, but that is mostly due to the fact that I use inert gas to arrest deterioration in my open bottles. I’d go as far to say that while this whisky is perfectly competent and quite tasty, I’d say that the original price of £95 is a little steep for a 12 y.o but is probably down to the costs of small scale production and it’s scarcity on the market. The whisky isn’t really worth much more. Many whisky enthusiasts are guilty of giving into FOMO, and in this case I just wanted to try and one small sample wasn’t enough. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be chasing Daftmill in the future. Sure, I’ll stick my name in the hat if I see a ballot come up in the off chance of success, but I’ll not worry if I get the email telling me it’s not to be this time.
Indeed, the fact it has to be balloted on release is a sure sign that the popularity of this dram is in effect its downfall as very few people can get their hands on it at even the expensive for what it is retail price. We quickly skip over and ignore how much I paid for it on the secondary market (£168 including shipping and fees) as it really does make me shiver now I’ve had more experience of it. However I am detecting a nice warm glow within my stone cold heart when I think of all the people I shared it with. Sharing is caring after all. That, coupled with the fact I have another bottle in reserve…
Finally. God pats me on the head and says “Good boy Scotty”. After weeks at sea and a virtual disappearance from the world of whisky, I finally land on my feet. Due to the mis-match of COVID quarantine rules for seafarers between Scotland and England, I find myself in London for 10 days while I wait out the time limit before I can return to the land of my birth.
Seeing as it has been some time since I’ve drunk any whisky, I was straight down to the hotel bar to observe the spirit offerings. Pretty poor for a whisky enthusiast, but as a bit of a peathead, it could have been a lot worse. Talisker, Ardbeg, Laphroaig 10, Lagavuilin 16, Dewars 12, Glenfiddich 12, Blue Label Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal 12 and a dribble of Macallan 18. Pretty uninspiring, so I knew I’d have to look further afield.
A whisky SOS was put out on Twitter and while I got a couple of replies and DM’s, the only meeting that came to pass was with Claire Vokins, a fellow member of the whisky twitterati and occasional blogger (www.woodforwhisky.com). It was agreed to meet at Milroys of Soho, a whisky shop / bar in Greek Street, just in time before I nipped back up the road to Scotland.
It was good to meet Claire, and we soon got into the whisky based topics that I knew we would. But it was hard to keep my eyes off the shelves behind the bar, wondering what whisky to start with after a warm-up beer. I’m cursing the fact that I didn’t take photos now, so you’ll have to make do with some I pinched from the web. Being in a whisky bar isn’t a new experience for me and I hadn’t planned to blog about it.
The set up of the bar is quite simple. World whiskies at the far end, moving to Islay at the opposite end. The cheaper drams are at the front with the more expensive ones to the rear. Much more expensive are the top shelf whiskies.
My last article touched on the concept of buying whisky that you may not drink. I’ve been collecting whisky since 2006 and I have to be honest there are some bottles in my collection I’ll never open. Partly as I did buy them with investment in mind, some because their value has risen beyond a point I’d feel comfortable opening, and some because I’ve discovered that I just like the look of the bottle but have no real desire to taste the dram over others that I want to drink more. This leads to the issue that I have bottles I will never know what they taste like.
If you are a newcomer to whisky, it is tempting to try as much as you can. While this is a laudable ideal, it can get very expensive when buying multiple bottles. It gets even more damning when you discover you don’t like the liquid within. This is why a whisky bar is an ideal solution for the enthusiast, collector and novice alike.
You get a bigger range to try from.
You aren’t committed to buying a whole bottle that you may not ever like.
Staff can give advice based on your taste preferences – this is a crucial difference between a whisky bar and a normal bar.
For the collector it can give the opportunity to try a dram in their collection without the need to open it.
These are the four positives, although there are caveats which some of my drinking companions last night found themselves falling foul of. Let me introduce you to Matt, Oliver and Harry. Oliver was a wine drinker and didn’t like whisky, so his two mates were trying to persuade him otherwise. Harry was an inquisitive newcomer to whisky and Matt – I’m not really sure where he was on a whisky journey and seemed a little squiffy, but all three were a good laugh in the end.
Matt had heard me and Claire talking about our drams, and started asking questions, so we started giving guidance. After Claire had left I continued to talk with them. Harry became more inquisitive and asked very pertinent questions over barrel types and how to taste whisky. By this point I was on a Linkwood 19 Darkness, a whisky that has been finished for three months in a PX Octave. This was a heavenly whisky, which gave me strong chocolate and coffee notes and was easily my whisky of the night, despite some pretty good contenders to choose from. However, Matt ignored my suggestion not to buy a round of Darkness for his mates and soon found out it was £21 a dram. Didn’t seem too happy about it but that was a rookie error. However he did enjoy it so all was good in the end.
This is where you have to be careful in a whisky bar. Without wanting to seem snobbish, there is no point going instantly for the expensive drams as a novice. You’ll maybe know that the whisky is good and you like it, but you’ll have few points of reference to know why it is good and how it ranks compared to other whiskies. For instance, I knew the Linkwood Darkness was good once I tasted it, but I can get almost as good an experience from drams that were a lot cheaper. We all know you can get decent drams under £40 a bottle, but knowledge takes time to acquire and requires you have many experiences to build up that mental data bank.
Once you are a more experienced hand and you know what you like, it becomes easier to discern what styles you like tasting and knowing what you would like to taste next. This is why a well stocked whisky bar is a cornucopia of delights for whisky geeks like me – the proverbial kid in a candy shop.
One thing to point out that in a bar like Milroys where you run a tab and pay before you leave, you have to keep an eye on the spending if you have little experience. For me, I never once asked the price of any drams I bought; I picked the drams I wanted to taste based on what I knew about the distilleries and being allowed to smell the bottle contents before I came to a decision. Specialist whisky bars often give tiny samples to allow you to try before you buy, which is another bonus. I had no idea of what I spent, and apart from the Linkwood I had no idea of what each dram cost until I got my bill. 5 drams and a beer came to £76. Bargain, especially considering the quality whisky I felt I had consumed as well as the company and ambience I had over the course of the evening.
Another good point for the inexperienced whisky bar novice is to plan your drams. Try and stick to lower abv drinks to start with. Also, if you are planning to drink a heavily peated whisky, then try to have that towards the end of your night, or have a suitable palate cleanser to hand. The higher abv’s will possibly desensitise your taste buds and impair your enjoyment of something more delicate afterwards. Plus you are at a danger of getting intoxicated quicker. Consider a high abv whisky as a finisher whisky before you head home.
My final tip for whisky bar newbies is to be cautious in picking a dram that only has one or two drams left in it. Whisky bars will not gas their bottles to arrest oxidation and evaporation. The plus side is that stock in a specialist whisky bar will not be sitting long, so the effect should be minimal. However if buying a more expensive dram and it has a small amount in it, consider asking how long since that bottle has been opened. Under 6 months and everything should be good. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Some whisky shelves have lighting facing the bottles that generate heat and will have an effect on the rate of oxidation and evaporation. Having said that, I’ve had bottles open 5 years and they tasted fine, but I’d bet they aren’t at the stated abv on the bottle. Being cautious can ensure you are actually getting what you paid for.
The bottle of Macallan 18 in the hotel that I mentioned earlier got finished during my stay in London. I bet the consumer didn’t get as good an experience as they would have had from the first pour. Let the lesson sink in as that would not have been a cheap dram.
For the record, the whiskies I tried were (in order):
Gordon & Macphails Single Malt Whisky – Speyside 21 y.o (40% abv). Turns out it was a Cragganmore.
Whisky Barron Glentauchers 6 y.o (62.5% abv)
Darkness Linkwood 19 (48.5% abv)
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte OLC 1 (55.1% abv)
If you are wondering if I took notes on any of the whisky, then the answer is no. Whisky is meant to be enjoyed, not constantly analysed. I get much from more tasting in good company. Indeed, once Claire, Harry, Matt and Oliver had all left, I fell into conversation with Jason, one of the bar tenders at Milroys who was enjoying a day off drink. If you think that all we spoke about was whisky you’d be mistaken. It turns out we have a shared enjoyment of photography. Another geek moment.
There’s more to whisky than a simple alcoholic drink… if you haven’t experienced a specialist whisky bar, then you need to.
Thanks to everybody mentioned in this article. I had a great night and look forward to be able toreturn. Also thanks to the two on duty bar tenders who I didn’t catch the names of – one was on her first day I believe. Your service was exemplary.
Matt, thank you for yourgenerosity of offering to buy me a drink. I only refused because I could have really taken the piss accidentally as I wasn’t asking the price of drams and didn’t want to take advantage. Maybe next time buddy.
It was often relayed to me by my parents that nothing in life comes easy. However, in this case they were most certainly wrong. This has been one of the easiest review titles that I have ever created. Since I have decided to review this whisky, every time I think of it the song ‘Loch Lomond’ has come into my head. As a Scotsman of a certain era, it is a right of passage to sing the Runrig version at the end of a wedding or just at some point in the proceedings. Some clubs I’ve been in also play it at the end of the night. We can’t forget either the twee Scottish soap opera that was filmed in Luss, on the shores of Loch Lomond. Lunchtimes were usually the time to see Take The High Road, which later moved to an evening slot.
The programme was drama based, and as in every drama, there is usually some sort of mystery. Often there is a character that isn’t who they seem. This is the case with Loch Lomond distillery. The first part of the mystery is that Loch Lomond is the preferred whisky of Captain Haddock, the best friend of Tin Tin, an investigative reporter created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known as Hergé. Often these characters get into adventures trying to solve various mysteries. Tin Tin was created around 1929, which pre-dates Loch Lomond distillery by some 35 years. This brings us on to our mystery now – Loch Lomond Distillery was founded in 1964. So why do the bottles carry the year 1814?
This is a mystery that we may need Tin Tin to solve, as when I looked up Loch Lomond on the internet and in various publications, it seems that there was a variety of information out there and not all of it correct, which contributed to me getting a bit waylaid in my search for facts. What was worrying was that some of the sources were normally creditable and supported by well known people in the whisky industry. It is time for the truth to be told about Loch Lomond distillery.
To kick off my investigations, when you look at any full-sized bottle of Loch Lomond whisky – it gives the year of 1814. Why is this the case when the distillery was opened in 1965? Well, it turns out the initial Loch Lomond distillery was opened in 1814, further up Loch Lomond in the village of Tarbert. There are no records to when the distillery closed, so the link is only the name. However, it was the owners of Littlemill Distillery who opened the Loch Lomond distillery and that whisky heritage goes back to 1772 with the founding of Littlemill. The owner of Littlemill, Duncan Thomas and an American company called Barton Brands formed a partnership to build Loch Lomond in 1964. By 1984 the distillery was closed before it was eventually being taken over by Alexander Bulloch / Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouses. In 2014 it was taken over by Loch Lomond Group, In 2019, the Loch Lomond Group was sold to Hillhouse Capital.
Loch Lomond is a shapeshifter of a distillery, with three different types of stills, making it possible to distill both grain and malt whiskies. This has led to a lot of confusion, as many websites claim that the distillery has Lomond stills. This is not true. Master Blender Michael Henry explains “Lomond Stills were never used at Loch Lomond. They were only ever used at Hiram & Walker distlleries.” The first Lomond still was developed at Innerleven distillery. As the distillery was close to Loch Lomond, they took on the loch’s name. The development of this style of still was some 9 years before the creation of the Loch Lomond distillery in Alexandria. Lomond stills were only ever used in Inverleven, Glenburgie, Miltonduff and Scapa. Only one is currently in use as a wash still at Scapa, with one more being used at Bruichladdich to create the Botanist Gin.
The straight necked stills were first used at Littlemill in the 1950s by Duncan Thomas, so were also used in Loch Lomond. There are some significant differences between the straight neck still and the Lomond still; size being the most obvious one. A Lomond still is short and fat, whereas the straight neck stills are taller and thinner. The next important difference is that the rectifier plates inside a Lomond still are moveable, to control the reflux within the still, which will make big differences in the spirit. The plates inside the straight necked stills are fixed.
There are definite advantages to using a straight neck still with the rectifier plates and still head cooling. A straight neck still is more efficient and can produce whisky up to 90% when using the still head cooling. Taking a cut between 90% and 80% which will give a strength at 85% at the spirit receiver. If still head cooling is not on, then a much wider cut is taken from between 90% and 55% giving a spirit at 65% at the receiver. By having the flexibility of the straight necked stills, coupled with clear wort, long fermentations and specific yeast varieties ensure that Loch Lomond are able to capture the fruity nature of the spirit. And that is something that Loch Lomond are aiming for – to capture the fruity essence into their whisky in a definitive distillery character.
The distillery also has continuous stills for producing grain whisky and the more traditional pot stills. In total they have one set of swan necked stills, three sets of straight necked stills and 3 continuous stills, each with 2 columns. The smaller of the sets is used for malted barley wash, and the larger continuous stills are used for wheat wash.
Why so many stills? It was the intention of the previous owners to be able to be self sufficient in whisky when making blends. Loch Lomond has over the years made many brands such as Inchmoan, Inchfad, Croftenga, Inchmurrin, Craiglodge, Old Rhosdhu, Glen Douglas, and Glen Garry. While many of these brands have fallen by the wayside, it has been instrumental in creating perhaps a false impression of the distillery and has made it harder to discuss distillery character. Whisky enthusiasts were confused and most other whisky drinkers didn’t get it at all, asking where the Inchmurrin distillery was.
I asked Michael why he thought it so hard to discuss distillery character, with Loch Lomond in mind. I got quite a comprehensive answer. “While single malt has been establishing itself against blends, distillers have mostly talked about wood and flavour, as it is easier to explain why a whisky takes on a sherry character if it has been matured in a sherry cask. It is a lot harder to discuss why a whisky has a fruitier character because a different yeast was used for a longer fermentation time with a different shape of pot still.” And I have to agree. As a whisky geek who has a limited understanding of chemistry, I am starting to study more about fermentation and the chemical processes that convert sugary water into whisky. None of it is dinner table style conversation, but it is much easier to skim over the whisky tastes by discussing casks. There is definitely a romantic story that can be built on that rather than discussing esters, phenols, yeasts and how long the fermentation takes.
It’s not to say that wood does not play a part in the formation of Loch Lomond whiskies. Michael told me that Loch Lomond buy 10,000 bourbon casks a year, all of which see the attention of their on site cooperage for inspection, repair and re-charr / de-charr of casks. The distillery has a 2 or three fill policy per char. A cask may see two de-charr / re-charr before that cask is scrapped. Their American wood policy is important to them, to give them a honey / caramel sweetness to compliment the fruity new make.
One other thing that Loch Lomond have started to do is experiment with yeast strains. I could write more about it here, but the Malt Review site had their own interview with Michael in which he goes into much more detail about this subject, and to save space and any plagiarism, you can link to the article here.
With all this information being shared, I asked Michael why he thought that there was so much misinformation about the distillery. The answer was pretty conclusive, and that was that the previous owners simply did not engage with the public. Essentially they had a high volume / low margin production policy. Nearly all their stock went into bulk blends, and there was no marketing as there was no brand to market. With little engagement and no background to any releases, people have made their best guesses. This easily perpetuates and I found quite a few reputable sites and vLogs with incorrect information.
There are no visitor facilities at Loch Lomond distillery, which makes it harder for the distillery to get its message out. The majority of the spirit produced at Loch Lomond is matured on site, which can amount to 300,000 casks. This makes it quite a hazardous site in terms of fire and explosion control, which is subject to tight regulation. In my interpretation of the distillery, it was never set up to be a site for visitors, and is essentially an industrial site. To take groups of people around would necessitate stopping operations, which is less than ideal. “This can create some suspicion as people think we have something to hide, when it is down to safety reasons that we have not been able to work out to an acceptable level,” says Michael.
As we come to the end of my investigations into Loch Lomond distillery, I feel that all my doubts about the distillery have been cleared up. There is a lot of work to do for Michael, who has said that the main role of his presence on Twitter is to engage with people so he can end the confusion over the various aspects of the Loch Lomond Distillery caused in part by the legacy of the former owners.
The range has been trimmed, which will make it easier for those drinking Loch Lomond to see the distillery character. The latest offerings has seen the Islands Collection brought into the Loch Lomond range. Inchmoan being the peaty offering of the two and using spirit from the straight neck still as well as the swan neck stills. The Inchmurrin is more lighter and floral, using spirit only from the straight neck stills.
Single Grain. 46% Non-chill filtered, natural colour; Unpeated NAS, Peated NAS. Both single grains are 100% malted barley.
I’ve not tasted Loch Lomond before, because I was one of those confused by the distillery and I never really gave it a chance. But when I was browsing through the miniatures of the Aviemore Gift Company, I saw the 18 year old sitting there, and I could hear the voices in my head telling me to take it off the shelf and buy it. I only wished I had a bit of situational awareness, as here I was in a gift shop in a tourist area away to buy whisky. £10.55 for a 5cl bottle… I really should have known better. Don’t worry, by telling this story and making this error means you don’t have to. But it’s an 18 year old from a distillery that plenty of people rate despite misconceptions, so it can’t all be bad, can it?
Let us find out.
Loch Lomond 18
Region – Highland Age – 18 years old Strength – 46% ABV Colour – Russet (1.3) Cask Type – American Oak – Bourbon Colouring – Yes Chill Filtered – No Nose – Strawberry Jam, Apple jolly ranchers, marzipan / almond, raisin, peat, hard toffee. Palate -Rich, like that hard toffee I am thinking of in the nose, very gentle on the palate, no real burn, light wood spices, slight apple, date sponge, hint of chocolate and smoke. Finish – medium. Woody spices really take off when drunk neat. ginger, white pepper, nutmeg, a woody metallic taste, Granny Smith apple bitterness, finished off with blackcurrant at the end. Leaves a slight sourness in the mouth and a very slight hint of sulphur.
With water, the spices in the palate wake up for an instant white pepper delivery, but the overall spice heat is tempered and brought into more balance in the finish. I found it much more drinkable.
When Michael first contacted me, his initial message said that he felt that my misconceptions about the brand had probably affected my ability to connect with the whisky. Now I have been able to understand more about the whisky, I have to agree with him. There will always be tendency to veer off to the negative when there is something you aren’t sure of. Being an Aberdonian, negativity is something that can perhaps too easy to attain. However, I still feel that this hasn’t affected my actual tasting notes, as if the truth be known, I was wanting to be proved wrong about some of the naysayers about this distillery. And having paid as much as I have for the sample, I was wanting value for money. Thats also a very Aberdonian trait.
The nose was appealing, and the finish had its good points, but it just didn’t totally float my boat. The palate was rich, but I felt it lacked something, almost a calm before a storm. The finish while taken neat was way out of balance for me. A sudden hit from the wood spices and a metallic presence made me think I had sucked a piece of oak with a nail buried in it. If I was to look into why this was the case, I can perhaps only explain it away by suggesting there may have been some interplay between the cap and the spirit? Will make sure I go for a corked bottle next time.
I have only altered my tasting notes slightly in response to the contact with Michael; not to change my opinion, but to alter facts. The distillery uses only ex bourbon casks in the core range, so I have had to remove the part about a possible sherry influence. Also, Michael explained that while the 18 year old is non chill filtered, they do add colouring due to the lighter colour produced by the bourbon casks. I know some people get bent out of shape about this, but I’m not going to. While I prefer a natural presentation, I’m not worried about a bit of colour, as it is flavour that matters. As long as I can’t taste the colouring, its good. I’m learning to not drink whisky with my eyes. Besides, most of the core range is under £40, the 18 year old is under £80, so it is not as though I am paying premium prices for a non-natural presentation. I would say this represents good value.
With water, this whisky was perfectly competent, and the spices reined in. As you can see, I did experience some fruity notes from the whisky – predominately apple ones for me. It’s been some time since I’ve had an apple Jolly Rancher! While I did not take to this release this time, now I know more I’d be happy to try another whisky from their range. From the descriptions, the Inchmurrin is likely to be the candidate, but that will be some time in the future. I think that taking the time to investigate Loch Lomond whiskies by yourself could be very worth while.
I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Michael for the help he has given to ensure an accurate article has been written. In disclosure, no incentive or samples have been given or expected and the content solely reflects a partial but accurate overview of what is being achieved at Loch Lomond, as well as an honest whisky review.
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.
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.
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.
Taste Review #104 – Glen Garioch 15 old style bottling.
They say that time waits for no man and for me that is so true. Events always pass me by, as life for me often seems to move at the speed of continental drift as everything speeds past. This can have some very positive effects. Due to being fashion unconscious, I’ve found that I can use my wardrobe of walking gear, Levis and 8 hole Dr. Martens to drift in and out of fashion as it ebbs and flows around me. And I have both the black and cherry red variants so can mix it up a bit. Being a canny Aberdonian, this also has the effect of not wasting money on frivolous pursuits such as clothes and leaves more cash for whisky. However, this review isn’t a new release at all, but a bottling from the middle part of the first decade of this century. It is from my former local distillery, Glen Garioch in Oldmeldrum.
You may be surprised (or not as the case may be) to find out that this is a sample that I have had sitting in my wee kitchen display cabinet for over two years. I received it from a work colleague as an exchange for a wee dram of Bruichladdich Yellow Submarine; after all, wee yellow submarines are our trade. I’ve bought a handful of these bottles on his recommendation but have yet to open one. I’ve been itching to try it, but told my colleague I’d do it when I had time to really concentrate on it. Well, as is the case with offshore workers that have a child, that moment doesn’t come around too often. This poor sample was sitting on the shelf for longer than it should have and now that I have completed my course of antibiotics for an infected knee joint, this is my first dram of 2021. Publishing the review has been postponed due to my old vs new series, so it’s had a little longer to wait, but after 2 years in a cabinet, it’s hardly a problem, right?
I used to live a little more than 15 minutes drive away from here, but it was only in March of last year that I managed a visit to the distillery. It was worth it, although I didn’t take to the Founders Reserve sample given out.You can read my review here. There was nothing wrong with it other than it not being to my taste, and had several things going for it, not least the 48% bottling strength. But you can’t like everything that a distillery releases, though I am hoping that my colleague’s recommendation is a sound one. Let’s find out.
Glen Garioch 15 Year Old (2007 bottling)
Just for clarity, Garioch is pronounced Gear-ie and rhymes with dreary.
Region – Highland Age – 15y.o Strength – 43% Colour – Chestnut Oloroso (1.2) Cask Type – Not known. Suspect Bourbon with a sherry finish Colouring – Not Stated Chill Filtered – Not Stated but likely. Nose – Honey, slightly nutty, heather, caramel, quite sweet. Slight whiff of smoke suggesting peat, but that’s all it is; a suggestion. Palate – Sweetness all the way, with a heathery honey with that whiff of smoke in the background. There is more citrus appears when water added. The sourness increases and there is a mild lemon note occurring. It’s oily, and the legs on the glass are absolutely fantastic. Finish – Long, warming, sweet, with a slight citrus sourness building and a hint of wood spice. A bit more spice builds as time goes on as more is drunk. Smoke still there but continues to be subtle.
It’s a pity I left it so long. It’s a great easy going sipper. There is little complexity to this dram, but that isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes you just need something you can drink and isn’t challenging. To put it into the Doric language which is used all around the North East of Scotland, it’s a dram that gives you a ‘bosie’ (at’s a hug t’ aa iv youse ‘at cannae spik i Doric wye). Now I’m faced with the decision of what to do with the other dram, as I did say I might pass it on once I’ve done my review. Just not sure if being half full will rapidly change the dram due to dissipation, evaporation and oxidation.
And yet in that vein, I have no idea how long the bottle my sample was taken from was open, so it could be well ‘rested’ so to speak, but if it is, it has done the dram no harm.
You can pick one of these full sized bottles up at auction for a hammer price of between £55 – £70, plus fees. It’s not a bad price for an enjoyable whisky, but has been discontinued for some time now, so you may struggle to get it anywhere else than auction.
I’d recommend trying this if you see it going about. Maybe a bit on the expensive side for its age and abv, but a worthwhile experience.
What remains to be seen is if this standard of whisky returns to Glen Garioch. In mid March 2021, the owners of the distillery, Beam Suntory, announced a £6m refurbishment which would include a return to more traditional methods of distilling. The news that the malting floors were being reopened was a surprise, though a welcome one. Whether or not they will process their entire malt requirement is unclear though it can only be a good thing that this will be happening, whether it is a fraction or the entire amount. Exciting times are ahead and I’d mark this distillery as one to keep an eye on.
Yours In Spirits
Cheers to Ritchie Keith for the sample. Very enjoyable.