It’s a poor show, I know, but I’ve not really had time to keep up with my whisky reviews lately. The older ones are archived below though for your perusal.
Springbank, solera 1950-1978
(Thompson Bros., Dornoch, drawn 15/8/96, 47 bottles, 54.7%)
A real rarity! In the mid-1960s an anonymous gent filled a small cask with 1950 Springbank, and then periodically topped it up with later vintages over the next decades. In 1996 the cask was decanted into demijohns and then finally bottled by the indefatigable Thompson Bros. up at Dornoch Castle. Obviously the result is something entirely singular and impossible to replicate, and also in very limited supply. I’m eternally grateful to Ian for the sample.
Nose: Like entering a vast warehouse full of ancient sherry casks, retired pipes and … Bird’s custard powder. Blackcurrant, sloes, and a bitter herbal note that teeters on the brink of being medicinal – like some obscure variety of Victorian throat pastille or salve. Ambre Solaire, too, in more prosaic fashion. There’s more fruit on a deep inhale: cherry (black) and orange, rosy apple sweets, all musky and tinged with smoke.
Taste: Starts on that (pleasantly) bitter note, then sweetens, with the bitterness weaving in and out during the long (long!) development. The main body, though, is a crazy phenolic mix of sweet black fruits and tar. It’s also reminding me of the tin of New Mexican piñon hot chocolate I have somewhere in the back of the kitchen cupboard: there’s definitely something a bit pine/cedar-ish happening, and it’s even evoking some of the other aromatic desert plants from that neck of the woods (desert sage, creosote bush), but – wow – we’re a long way from Campbeltown now! This is a huge old whisky that contains multitudes; it lends itself to flights of fancy.
Finish: Insanely long. Ginger and peppery smokiness up front, masses of preserved fruits and leathery Ancho chillies mid-palate, tobacco and dark cocoa powder behind. Full spectrum dominance.
Well, here I am. Empty glassed, but very much in the company of a wistful sensation or two. Mostly I’m just delighted to have had the chance to try a little fragment of a personal whisky story – of history really – that had somehow made it through into the 21st century.
Also of delight is the fact that this isn’t just an historical curio but is also one of the best drams I’ve ever had. It’s huge and complex, but totally coherent and delicious. It’s ancient and deeply oaked, but lively and loquacious. It’s magical.
Dornoch is your best bet if you’d like to try it yourself.
Jura, SMWS 31.32 “Piri-Piri and Teriyaki chicken”, 26yo
(Distilled 19th April 1989, ex-bourbon refill hogshead, 186 bottles, 52.7%)
An admission before I begin: I don’t really like Jura. On paper it’s a whisky that’s somewhere between the style of Campbeltown and Islay, which should be a very happy place for me indeed, but somehow it seems to be the worst of both worlds. I’m aware that I’ve not been keeping up with recent developments, but my memories of trying the various official bottlings tend to be of feinty, cardboardy notes, and a consistency that’s somehow simultaneously oily and dry. I just don’t find it agreeable.
On the other hand, it’s a strangely popular whisky – it’s funny how many non-whisky people have a bottle of Superstition or similar in their house – and in principle I’m all for whisky with oddball character and personality. So, with an open-ish mind, I’m going to try what should be Jura at its best: well-aged and independently bottled. Here goes nothing.
Nose: Rockpools at low tide on a hot day: wet stone, beached seaweed, saline, slightly funky. Well okay then. There’s a bit of ashy smoke, and an odd earthiness that’s making me think of spent coffee grounds (I’m getting a bit of filter paper too). Above all these base notes there’s this odd (there’s that word again) fragrant and sparklingly minerallic thing that’s bring to mind bath salts… More conventionally a little time in the glass starts revealing some fruit pie … a bit peachy and buttery.
Taste: Somehow it’s immediately both very sweet and very tannic, like someone has distilled a batch of builder’s tea, and accompanied by a tongue-tingly minerallic sensation. It’s like the ammonium chloride stuff that Scandiwegian and Norddeutsche (hi mum!) types put on their salty liquorice. Something explicable only with reference to the Hanseatic League or the Schleswig-Holstein Question no doubt. There’s a bit of the liquorice too, and some “woody” spices: cassia bark and allspice berries. It’s more jerk than teriyaki chicken to my mind, with apologies to the SMWS’s tasting panel.
Finish: It remains richly tannic – like a combo of very red wine and very dark chocolate – but in the very long aftertaste that fades away to leave some lingering dark fruit (blackcurrant sweets) and a dry chocolate note.
Well, this is certainly different, and – to be honest – I’m struggling to answer what should be a fairly simple question: did I like it? I think the issue is that there’s so much going on here, and quite a lot of it fairly weird, that it’s hard to stop treating it like an intellectual exercise. I feel I’ve been dissecting it rather than tasting it.
What I will say is that it’s always worth trying something this interestingly odd – your palate will appreciate the work-out. And it’s prompted me to wonder if all old Jura is like this? Further exploration beckons.
Glen Garioch – 25yo 1989 “Peaches and Cream” Wemyss
(Distilled 1989, bottled 2014, hogshead, 357 bottles, 46%)
Always an interesting distillery is Glen Garioch. For a start it’s one of the oldest around, dating back into the 18th century, and with a name that trips up even those of us whisky nerds who kid ourselves we’ve got an okay grip on the ol’ Gaelic. (It’s pronounced “glen geery”, deriving from the Doric dialect of the north-east Highlands.)
It’s taste rather than trivia we’re concerned with here though, and that remains … interesting. Pre-1980s Glen Garioch was often very smoky, rather in the Brora mould; post-1997 it has been totally unpeated. The 80s and 90s were a time of transition, then, and batches from that period are quite varied: sometimes smoky, sometimes fruity, sometimes (especially in the mid-90s) very austere and a bit grassy. You don’t know quite what you might find with these years, and here’s one from right in the middle of that vintage of vaguery. Personally I’m hoping to find some peaches and cream.
Nose: The initial impression is of plant sap – green and cooling, with a wee hit of menthol. Then come the peaches (yay!) and some cantaloupe and a touch of coconut. A deep breath finds some earthy peat (just a touch), coal tar and liquorice root. I’m even getting a tiny waxy and metallic thing, a bit like a weird hybrid of Clynelish and Ben Nevis. We’re in the Highlands, that much is for certain. As it breathes it becomes more obviously fruity, with oranges popping up, and a bit of something redcurrant-ish.
Taste: A fun and exuberant start, being both softly creamy and quite zingy with spice. A little salty too, which is slightly unexpected. Peach and orange, still, and a bit more lemon.
Finish: A dry finish – again with an earthy side, now accompanied by some bitter herbs. Peach-flavoured iced tea, perhaps, and lots of cough candy. I’m reminded of when you sometimes eat a persimmon that is simultaneously sweetly fruity and yet tannic.
In a way this bottling is like a Greatest Hits of mid-period Glen Garioch. The smoky, the fruity, the grassy – which one will you find? Well, sort of a bit of them all. Like a compilation, though, it doesn’t necessarily cohere into something with its own identity.
To be slightly more concrete: a great and complex nose, but then slightly downhill from the initial does-what-it-says-on-the-tin peaches and cream into a bit of a disappointing finish. Still a really solid – and always interesting – Glen Garioch though, and quite an evocative encapsulation of this period of the distillery’s history.
Dailuaine, 28yo 1975 First Cask
(Distilled 26/5/75, cask #5526, 46%)
The Special Releases 2015 34yo Dailuaine is one of those whiskies that occasionally spurs me into a wistful haze of reminiscence. Buying a whole bottle was well outside my budget, but I’ve been keeping an eye out for similarly-aged bottlings at auction for less eye-watering prices.
And, voila! A 1975 vintage that was cheap as chips. First Cask were – I gather – some sort of whisky club, now defunct, and seemingly sourcing their whiskies from Signatory. They’re often affordable at auction, but there’s little information out there about them, so you do have to buy blind.
Let’s see if this hopeful leap into the unknown has paid off!
Nose: We’re starting off well with that cascade of honey I remember from the Special Release. Grand! There’s beeswax too, and just a touch of furniture wax – complete with a bit of elegant sandalwood or cedar. There’s a hint of sweet strawberry marshmallow, but the main impression that I find is of a slightly sour (not displeasingly so) and very “yellow” fruitiness: think slightly under-ripe mango, peach and orange. Peach iced tea too, and a few oddly beery notes.
Taste: Oranges! Loads of ’em! Tinned mandarin segments too, with some melon balls … it is a mid-1970s whisky after all! Then it gets darker and spicier, with quite a lot of gingerbread shot through with clove and cinnamon. Some liquorice wood comes in, and then it just eases off in a slightly tart direction with some menthol and lime…
Finish: …before a return to honey and sweetness in the finish. Fanta, too, complete with a fizzy touch on the tip of the tongue. Ends on notes of baklava and lebkuchen, with just a touch of lime cordial.
Right, what’s interesting here is how close this 1975 Dailuaine is to the 1980 Special Release – my tasting notes are hitting the exact same references. However, there’s a slight – slight! – feeling that it’s playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. (Apologies to Andre Previn and Eric Morecambe!) That is to say this is like a less balanced and elegant version, and maybe shows the difference between a single cask bottling and a release composed of multiple casks designed to smooth over any rough edges. And, come to think of it, 6 additional years of maturation.
But, still, this is a superb whisky, and – since I was coming to it with a decidedly non-open mind! – an unfair review. Getting 90% of the way to one of the best whiskies I’ve tasted in recent years for 10% of the cost has to be a success in anyone’s book.
Glen Moray, SMWS 35.145 “Lost in the dessert”, 24yo
(Distilled 25/10/91, 2nd fill ex-bourbon hogshead, 228 bottles, 57.6%)
Glen Moray used to have a bit of a bargain-basement reputation, but I get the feeling they’re increasingly fondly regarded. Certainly some very nice young casks knocking about at the moment…
Nose: Green and fresh and sweet. Apple Jolly Ranchers and cucumber undercut by a pleasantly sour wood/tobacco note. Coconut, too, and cola – not Coca Cola, but something off-brand and more cola nutty. Hints of tarmac, honey and musk. Adding water brings out a red fruit note – cherry! – and a bit of vanilla pastry.
Taste: Very immediate and very lovely – with shedloads of tart green apple, honey and vanilla cream. Develops with Cherry Coke (the Real Thing this time) and cinnamon. Water brings out that spicy side a bit more.
Finish: Surprisingly rich, and with a decent amount of oaky spice. The apple boiled sweet theme continues and adds some balancing sharpness. Raw honey with bits of comb in it, and some typically Speyside grassy notes. Oakier with water. Nice musky melon thing happening in the aftertaste.
Right, if you’re trying a whisky and find yourself noting down “tarmac, honey and musk” you know you’re having a good time! I love the nose on this – it’s fascinating and enticing – and makes the rest of the experience of this whisky seem a bit pedestrian. I suppose it’s unfair, but it’s also true that we’re very much in the “typical Speyside” realm – even if that’s a jolly nice place to be.
Very good and enjoyable overall (although be careful with adding water), and a particularly nice balance between the sweet and tart – but it’s the nose that’ll make you swoon.
Distilled in Speyside, 19yo 1990 The Daily Dram
(Distilled 1990, bottled 2009, 48%)
This is an undisclosed Speyside single malt … but might there possibly be a clue in the picture of Balvenie Castle on the label? Hmm. Other bottlers, of course, use the “Burnside” name for whisky from that particular distillery … ahem ahem. Not that I can confirm things one way or another of course.
There’s no info provided about the cask type either (although from the colour I’d say bourbon barrel or fairly active hogshead) so we have to plunge in blindly.
Nose: OK, while trying to maintain a bit of uncertainty I have to say this certainly smells like classic Balvenie: apricot jam, a bit of syrupy peach, touches of honey and floral vanilla. Beyond that though are some interesting and even unexpected notes: banana, some dried mint tea leaves, a limestone mineral thing, and just a faint waft of something medicinal. A bit of germolene and gauze? Just the teeniest hint of those I have to stress. but it’s an example of what I like so much about this nose – upfront you get all the immediately appealing sweet fruitiness, but it’s backed by some complexity and even idiosyncrasy. An excellent start.
Taste: We’re starting off with all that fruit from the nose, but also some more tart notes – green melon, slightly unripe red plums, lime, bit of persimmon maybe? There’s a nice creamy thing happening too though, and I keep thinking of banana-flavour Nesquik (a guilty pleasure, I must admit). There’s also a good amount of wood spice here – ginger and white pepper – and I’m still getting that faint medicinal touch. Almost iodine, actually, which is a weird thing to find here.
Finish: Interesting two-track finish of creamy fruits (tropical fruit yoghurt style) battling with those spices which verge on being drying and tannic. Have you ever tried Autumn Olive fruit? I’m reminded of their combination of spiky tropicality and slight astringency. The aftertaste is more straightforwardly lovely though – with dried apricot and black tea.
A tricksy one this. It starts and ends fantastically well, but in the middle the ginger/pepper spice just verges on being too much … it’s probably a matter of personal taste as much as anything, but for me it’s definitely on the borderline. Still lots to enjoy here, but perhaps an occasion when bottling a few years earlier might have been the right move.
Tamdhu, 21yo 1991 Cadenhead’s Authentic Collection
(Distilled 1991, bottled July 2012, bourbon hogshead, 258 bottles, 57.0%)
I have a soft spot for Tamdhu, I must admit. They’re one of those Speyside distilleries that you don’t hear much about, but their standard 10yo is one of the best value for money drams out there (far superior to the budget offerings from the bigger Speyside players), and even their slogan – they’re the “can-dhu spirit” you know – is so wonderfully naff that it’s actually magnificent.
All the official Tamdhu releases are sherried though, so for something different let’s try something bourbon-matured and see if we can get a peek at the unadorned spirit.
Nose: A nose of two halves. One side is all sharp green fruits: unripe greengages and plums, lime cordial, tart cider. The other is earthy and a touch mineral: like an autumnal forest floor with dried leaves and mossy stones. These are things you might expect to find in a musty old sherried whisky, so it’s interesting to find them here in a very clean and crisp context. With time it becomes waxier, and also sweeter with more fruit poking through, but also a bit of a beery grain side. With water it’s fruitier still – oranges! – but also much simpler and less interesting.
Taste: Starts off syrupy and waxy – like tinned mandarin segments. Then – whoosh – a big wave of tart citrus: citrons, candied grapefruit, lime cordial again. Wakes you up! There’s a bit of stem ginger in there too, maybe. Adding water brings out some grassiness – it’s really better neat.
Finish: Clean and pleasantly malty, if not terribly long. The citrus is still the dominant thing now, but a bit sweeter and more caramelly. Pomelo, maybe, and a bit of lemongrass syrup. (Nice on a fruit salad, that.)
I really like this. It’s like the whisky equivalent of a limoncello sorbet or lemon granita – invigorating and refreshing – and would make an excellent palate-cleanser at a tasting. It stays just on the right side of that line between tart and bitter too, although it does fall apart with added water.
I suppose it’s a somewhat one-dimensional whisky, but if you like that dimension it occupies – zesty, crisp, citrussy – then it’s a belter. Probably a very summer-appropriate dram too, although I live in Manchester and don’t really feel qualified to comment on that point…
Bladnoch, SMWS 50.77 “Good old days”, 25yo
(Distilled 26/1/1990, refill ex-bourbon barrel, 114 bottles, 57.0%)
It had been a strange, upsetting and tiring day when I first tried this whisky over the SMWS bar in London. And the reason I mention this is that it got me thinking about how context-driven taste is: I don’t think, really, the experience of returning to this whisky now – at home, quite content and with a cat sleeping on my lap – is going to be much like that first quick dram grabbed in the half-hour I had to kill before heading to Euston. It did cheer me up, though, a bit.
It’s not just the immediate circumstance, either. Everyone, I think, has reference points for taste locked in from past experience – whether those be those vivid childhood memories that I find myself referencing all the time in tasting notes (I’ll be doing more of this in just a moment!), or the more considered reflection of, for instance, having tried a bunch of 1990 Bladnochs and having a rough idea of what to expect with this one. We’re all built of both our innate prejudices and the weight of our pasts, us humans, and thoroughly irrational to boot.
So, having established the total subjectivity of this enterprise, let’s try a bit of whisky!
Nose: Very Bladnockian to start, with a combination of lemon, old-fashioned shaving soap and buttermilk. It’s a Lowlands thing. After a second to breathe it’s sweeter: like a sponge finger soaked in an orange and ginger syrup, with some old dusty chocolate in the background. There are hints of a darker fruity note too, like blackcurrant or damson. It’s pretty great, really.
Taste: Starts on baked apple with cinnamon and raisins, then goes a bit darker again. I remember sitting in Greville Street trying to remember what it reminded me of, before noticing that whoever writes the SMWS tasting notes was there already: Dominosteine! Gingerbread with a slightly tart fruit jelly, dark chocolate and either praline or marzipan. Another childhood thing, see, or at least the German bit of my childhood. With water it becomes tarter – Bramley apple and some peppery spice. It’s not unpleasant, but you do have to be careful and only add a few drops.
Finish: I’m doing the British side of childhood now and thinking of Cornflake Cakes: golden syrup, chocolate, butter, cereal. There’s even a hint of rum baba in there too, I think, and maybe it’s the mallow cream from inside a Tunnock’s Tea Cake? Apple puree, too, a bit. There’s a touch of heat here too, but again it’s touchy with water and gets somewhat tannic and woody with more than a small splash.
Despite all the childhood stuff, this isn’t a sweetie shop whisky, but rather a very grown-up dessert whisky with the gloopy richness undercut by some pleasantly bitter notes. We’re talking a nice high-cocoa chocolate here, rather than a Kinder Egg. It’s got quite an autumnal feel, too, and if we’re talking context then a dram of this on a cold October night would be just about perfect.
It does lose a few points though for that slightly hot edge, and how temperamental it is with added water. Proceed with caution there. It’s perhaps just a notch below the average quality of Society 1990 Bladnochs, but then that’s a very high benchmark and I’d suggest that everyone should have at least one on their whisky shelf.
Scapa, 13yo 2001 Gordon & MacPhail
Scapa is very much the second son of Orkney, overshadowed by the much-admired (but also slightly overdoing it with the endless special editions…) Highland Park. It’s had a rougher ride too, and when this whisky was distilled in 2001 it was by a team from Highland Park who were coming in for just a few weeks per year to keep the mothballed distillery ticking over.
It seems to have a lot of fans though, and I still get emails from people asking if I know where they can get hold of a bottle of the discontinued 16-year-old. For the record: I don’t! And I have to admit I don’t understand the attraction: it always seemed pleasant but uninteresting to me, and I haven’t felt compelled to try the newer no-age-statement releases. This, then, is only the second Scapa I’ve tried, and hopefully I’ll find it more entertaining.
Nose: OK, if I was going into this blind I might have said it was Glenmorangie on first impression. It’s really close to their Tùsail. It’s fresh, slightly floral and very sweet, with apples, pears (tinned), pineapple and even a hint of bubblegum. A fair bit of barley too, some green sap, and a smidge of ginger. After a while you can start to pick out a certain coastal / mineral quality – a soupçon of pebble beach, if you will. (You probably, wisely, won’t).
Taste: Really quite zesty! Everything from the nose is there, but with the emphasis on the tarter side: lemon barley water, candied lemon, green apple peel, a little pepper. There’s a darker and sweeter note there too, a bit like chestnut honey.
Finish: Chocolate! Very creamy white chocolate to be precise, with little spikes of acidity still popping through. I had a white chocolate truffle with bit of freeze-dried raspberry once and, basically, it’s that. The aftertaste isn’t long, but is all on that cream and vanilla, with maybe just the teeniest bit of salt knocking around.
Well, from the nose I was all set to go with my nice-but-dull Scapa prejudice, but it gets more interesting. It’s still not a big or complex whisky, but still manages to take you on a little journey from tangy citrus to white chocolate that’s quite worthwhile and fun. I was also expecting to complain about it only being at 43% but, you know, actually it’s fine.
So, I still don’t think I would rush out to seek Scapa, but this is light, approachable, refreshingly tart for the summer and – yes! – not boring.
Linkwood, 26yo 1989 Cadenhead’s Single Cask
It’s summer here in Manchester and frankly my poor northern constitution is struggling with the heat. It’s unnatural is what it is, and not especially conducive to nuanced thoughts about cask strength spirits. However, I have rolled up my sleeves, put a knotted hankie on my bonce, and will attempt to tackle a rather fine sherried Speysider before slumping back into a sweaty torpor.
Nose: You know that smell when you first puncture the skin of an orange? That’s exactly what you get when you pour a glass of this, even before your nose is anywhere near. Get in closer though, and you start to get a bit of sherry cask – dried figs and golden raisins – but quite nicely balanced with a grassy freshness. After a few moments it starts to get richer, with stewed oranges and strawberries (strawberry marshmallow too). Some orange blossom water, and a few hints of spice.
Taste: Loads of oranges. Loads, I tell you! Then rosewater and quince jelly. Strawberry sweets, plus stewed stone fruits. A bit of spice in the form of a clove-studded baked apple with raisins. The strength is bang on – don’t mess around with water.
Finish: A sweet, earthy, chestnutty development as the sherry cask makes itself more obvious. Brown sugar, marzipan and a bit of pomegranate syrup. A little leafy mint and bitter orange cuts through right at the end.
A massive fruity chap, this Linkwood, but well-balanced too. The richer sherry notes are tempered by the underlying grassy freshness of the spirit; the sweet fruit is accompanied by some spice and bitter orange. The end result is still a sweet whisky, but never sugary or cloying, and with a lovely sort of Middle Eastern theme running through it. If you’re reaching for things like rosewater, quince and pomegranate as descriptors then things are generally going well. An excellent cask selection by Cadenhead’s, and an unimpeachable choice for an easy-drinking summer evening dram.
Ledaig, 11yo 2005 Single Malts of Scotland
(Distilled 5/6/05, bottled 6/7/16, sherry butt #900161, 564 bottles, 56.8%)
Ledaig is everywhere these days (if someone wants to sell me a cask then *makes phone-me gesture*) and pretty much uniformly superb. It’s funny that I don’t really get on with Tobermory, but the peated spirit that flows from the same stills I find to be exemplary. Most of the casks being bottled are ex-bourbon, but here’s a fairly heavily-sherried one for contrast.
Nose: Big, coastal, peaty with a bit more of an iodine tang than most Ledaigs. Fragrant pipe tobacco, and a sort of dark smouldering quality. Behind that there is a similarly dark fruitiness, with an acidic edge to it – something like pickled Morello cherries perhaps. With a splash of water more sweetness comes out – in fact it’s like poking your nose into an old-fashioned sweetshop.
Taste: Huge, with chunky peat and masses of fruit. I’m imagining some sort of expensive fruit jellies: orange, quince, mango. More smouldering, but this time cedar wood. Liquorice. Carbolic soap. There’s a slightly chalky edge to the sweetness, like Edinburgh Rock.
Finish: Sweet and deep and dark. Chocolate with a cherry jelly centre. Stays sweet right to the end, but with a slightly dry pineapple quality and a little bag of spices. Lovely long aftertaste of bonfire, salty treacle toffee and a faint TCP waft.
A massive whisky this, and perfectly drinkable neat assuming you’re of sound health and a robust frame of mind. Consult your family physician if you’re not sure. The sherry is nicely judged, and you still get the blade-like Ledaig spirit showing through, but balanced by prodigious amounts of fruit and smoke. The sweetness is there right through it too. It’s just hugely enjoyable to drink, although not subtle.
But, for those times when you’d like to be figuratively smacked around the chops, it is highly recommended.
(Incidentally, when adding water to this dram it goes incredibly cloudy – not so much the normal Scotch mist as a Scotch peasouper! Presumably all those lovely lipids and oils and fatty acids are playing a part in how big and hefty this whisky is on the palate…)
(Incidentally #2, it took me ages to drag Edinburgh Rock from the crannies of my memory. The taste was utterly distinct and familiar and yet I couldn’t connect it up to the actual real-world object. It’s funny how smell and taste can do that. Very concrete and very abstract simultaneously…)
Mortlach, 28yo 1987 Cadenhead’s Authentic Collection
(Distilled 1987, bottled February 2016, bourbon hogshead, 198 bottles, 55.3%)
Ah, “the beast of Dufftown”! Aside from some of the old very meaty sherry cask bottlings it’s not really that beastly, I find. Thanks to a somewhat unusual production method it is almost always quite a big and bold spirit however.
This one has spent 28 years in a bourbon hogshead, so let’s see whether it is (apologies to the makers of salami-based snacks) a bit of an animal.
Nose: An interesting mix of very posh vanilla ice-cream and that rather déclassé red sauce that ice-cream vans put on 99s… or maybe it’s condensed milk with canned black cherries? Behind that there’s some gorgeous old wood – like a well-used pipe, complete with a hint of smoky tobacco. A drop of water brings out more fruit: glacé cherries, sweet blackcurrant, even a bit of candied orange. There’s just a teeny hint of some floral violet. It’s an enticing start.
Taste: Waxy lemons and the intimation of furniture polish. A wine-poached pear with a few spices chucked in. Again some touches of violet – makes me think of old Bowmore! The wood jumps out a bit at this stage – slightly dry and liquoricey – but then…
Finish: …the creaminess comes back in force, with those accompanying dark red fruits. Müller Fruit Corner! Then – hmm! – very distinctly cherry-flavour Tunes, complete with a lightly medicinal and menthol edge, and whatever generic “fruit” flavour blue freezer pops are. Blue flavour, I suppose. A long finish; sweet like a cherry chapstick.
Interesting, this. On one hand it’s clearly this enormously classy old Speyside whisky, but on the other I found myself reaching for descriptions evoking artificial fruit flavours. Maybe this is just me showing myself up, and beneath this thin pretentious whisky reviewing carapace I’m actually a bit cheap and plebby (almost certainly true), but I don’t think it’s just that. The taste doesn’t quite live up to the magnificent nose, and there’s something about it that doesn’t strike the right note for me.
So, interesting but flawed. Your mileage may, as ever, vary. I’m just some bloke with a WordPress template and an opinion.
Longmorn, SMWS 7.130 ‘Musky, floral, sweet perfumes’, 25yo
(Distilled 15/6/90, refill ex-bourbon hogshead, 240 bottles, 55.1%)
Poor old Longmorn. Another stalwart old distillery that is now, apparently, a “super-premium brand” … so, you know the drill: prices up, quality down, posh packaging. Whisky for rich people who don’t know much about whisky. In case you think I’m being overly cynical those were the exact words that a representative of another premium brand said to me a while ago. C’est la vie and all that.
So, here’s your choice. The official 23yo Longmorn in a frankly pretty ghastly aftershave type bottle for nearly £500, or an older cask strength release from an independent bottler at less than a quarter the price. Let’s assume you’ve made the obvious choice and try a bit.
Nose: Hmm, yes – ‘musky floral sweet perfumes’ – can’t argue with that! Mind you, the SMWS also describe the colour of this whisky as ‘setting sun on honeyed sandstone’ which is getting a bit fruity if you ask me. Back to the dram. It’s all about a balance of acidity and sweetness, with a bit of a spiced hit. So: orange and apple slices with cinnamon, those blackcurrant and liquorice sweets, a few morello cherries. Some dark chocolate wafer behind the scenes, and even a touch of something like rye bread. That’s the musky bit I guess.
Taste: Big, deep, rich. Peach and Fruits of the Forest jams, balanced with some gingery spice. There’s a bit of rosewater jelly there too, and maybe that Spanish wine jam as well (Have you tried that? Rather good with cheese.) Flambeed apple, with a wafer biscuit (just one, mind you).
Finish: Drinking the juice from a can of peaches while chewing Big Red gum. A chocolate, orange and ginger finish – there’s lots of oak here, but it’s elegant and spiced rather than drying.
An exuberant whisky, this. The big lush fruitiness and the dry musky spiciness don’t come together totally harmoniously, but jostle around for attention. It’s not unbalanced exactly, it just has a lot of boisterous personality.
Hugely enjoyable – I’d go as far as “exciting” maybe – and a perfect antidote to some of the more middle-of-the-road Speyside whiskies. Recommended.
Talisker Distillers Edition
(Distilled 2005, bottled 2015, batch TD-S:5RD, 45.8%)
10 year old Talisker is one of those stalwart and reliable whiskies that is often the saving grace behind mediocre bars or on supermarket shelves. (Let’s spurn the various Skye and Storm iterations though which are both more expensive and less interesting.)
What if you fancy a wee change though and pick up the Distillers Edition? This is 10 years old too, but is finished in Amoroso sherry casks. I’m no sherry expert, but as far as I can tell this is a type of sweetened sherry (usually with oloroso as its base), something like the – now deeply unfashionable – cream sherries of yore.
Nose: Its a sweet and fruity nose from the off – and there’s a slightly odd floral edge to it, maybe somewhere between rose petals and lily of the valley? It’s something that you tend to find in port cask whiskies too. Inhale deeply and you find more sherry and raisins, and just hints of smoke – cigarette smoke at that. (Incidentally, I was thinking the other day how infrequently you encounter that these days – instead people roam the streets emitting clouds of plug-in-air-freshener-like odours from silly little wands. I’m no Luddite but, bloody hell, the future is turning out to be unfathomably naff.) With time it settles down a bit and more typical Talisker coastal notes start to show up – sea water, old netting, boquerones in oil, cedar wood.
Taste: Quite big and oily. There’s a fair bit of orange, and this sort of odd salty and chalky thing going on – a bit like fizzy water with lemon and an aspirin in it. The typical Talisker peppery note is there, but quite muted. As it develops the sherry pops out a little more, and there’s a bit of candied lemon.
Finish: The floral hints come back, and there’s some tangy-sweet dried fruits. Cranberries, maybe? Smoke and ashes start to come through, and then into a long, deep finish with oranges, chocolate and a touch of salt. It’s a really nice finish.
So, I find this an odd little beast. There’s a lot going on and some quite strange aspects, but that actually makes it entertaining to drink. It’s more of a daft diversion than a “proper” whisky, I suppose, but I really have no objection to that. It’s supposed to be fun, this whisky lark, you know.
What’s less fun is the 50% or more premium you pay for this bottle over the standard Talisker 10. Value is always a personal judgement, but it’s in the same price bracket as some great drams, so it’s certainly one I’d look to try before buying. Worth the trying though.
Bowmore, 26yo 1989 Cadenhead’s Authentic Collection
(Distilled 1989, bottled July 2015, bourbon hogshead, 210 bottles, 56.5%)
Bowmore’s a dark horse.
When I first got into Islay whisky it was really the Kildalton distilleries (Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig) that seemed so exciting. Bowmore, somehow, didn’t quite have the same cachet. So, how has it become one of my very favourite whiskies?
Part of the answer is simply that times change and tastes alter. But also it’s that the official bottlings of Bowmore are – frequently – a bit pedestrian, and it’s only when you dive into the independents you get Bowmore at its best. And there are a lot out there to try; endless in variety.
Let’s see what this one has to say for itself.
Nose: It’s a floral and complexly aromatic Bowmore – with a bit more of a iodine / antiseptic hit than you’d expect. Maybe they borrowed a few staves for the cask from Laphroaig or Caol Ila! A bit of gentle woodsmoke and beach sand (I won’t mention the dreaded “bonfire on the beach” tasting note, but y’know there’s a reason why it’s become a cliche for Islay malts…). Cigarette smoke too. There’s a sort of chalky sweetness to it, so we’re into an old-fashioned sweetshop perusing Love Hearts and Refreshers. Not too many Parma Violets though, unlike some other 1980s Bowmores. After a while in the glass you get this lovely jammy red fruit note. So far so fantastic.
Taste: Starts with a very buttercream taste and mouthfeel, with some sweet grapey fruit notes. Wine gums! A bit of liquorice, aniseed and cough syrup start to come out, and as you come back to it you start to discern more tropical fruits and a bit of blackcurrant.
Finish: The smoke comes in more, accompanied with more savoury notes: toasted peanuts and sesame seeds in particular, which is somewhat unusual, and a bit of salty laverbread, which is maybe more typically Islay. Settles ultimately into this odd slightly-astringent-but-weirdly-juicy-too-somehow orangey, smoky and medicinal aftertaste, with darker fruit knocking around too, and really does linger for ages, perplexing the palate.
So, this is a complicated old beast, not “easy” but rather cantankerously lovable. The slightly drying finish is the only small mark against it, but I just find it encourages taking another sip, which is fun (and dangerous).
Not the place to start with Bowmore, but a wonderful stop on the journey.
Clynelish, 18yo 1997 Douglas Laing Old Particular
(Distilled July 1997, bottled Dec 2015, refill hogshead #DL10999, 298 bottles, 48.4%)
As others have noted the label says this is from a refill hogshead, but there has clearly been some sherry involved somewhere in this whisky’s past…
Nose: Weirdly the thing this immediately reminds me of is Auchentoshan (and we’re supposed to be up in the Highlands rather than Lowlands!) – it has that particular fresh/fragrant/mineral quality that always reminds me of old-fashioned shaving soap. Deeper and more sherried flavours then pop out – blackcurrant and liquorice sweets, and some nice oaky tobacco. It’s atypical for a Clynelish, although if you go looking you can find a bit of the signature wax and honey in the background.
Taste: You really go on a journey with this one. It starts, though, on sweet red fruits, blackcurrants, honey and quite a bit of cereal. It’s a bit posh muesli, actually. There’s some sherry, tea and raisins knocking around too.
Finish: Then it gets a little hot and spicy, before settling into a long sweet and fudgy aftertaste, with some spiced baked apple. It’s a lovely chewy and mouth-filling finish, and definitely my favourite part of this dram.
Bunnahabhain, 14yo 2001 Douglas Laing Old Particular
(Exclusive for the Green Welly Stop. Distilled Dec 2001, bottled May 2016, sherry butt #DL11156, 150 bottles, 48.4%)
Nose: Banana bread! Very rich indeed, with some custard and caramel sauce. There’s just a touch of peat here too, I think, and a sort of heathery earthiness. Some stem ginger, cloves (lots!), and a hint of chocolate mint.
Taste: Dessert in a Yorkshire tea room. Parkin (yum etc…), and a richly-spiced apple pudding with toffee sauce. There’s a sort of dry biscuity chocolate quality too, with a decent pinch of salt.
Finish: Goes a little bit mint choc chip for a bit, with some blackcurrant pastilles. Dried banana chips, more pudding spices, and still a smack of salt.
One of the joys of single-cask bottlings is that you often get whiskies like these that don’t quite fit into the distillery profile. It’s not that they’re totally un-Clynelishy and and un-Bunnahabhainy, but rather they’re fascinating variations.
The Clynelish, though, doesn’t quite come together for me; there’s lots happening but it all ends up feeling a little incoherent. It’s a solid dram for sure, but there are a lot of 1997 Clynelishes out there, many of which are truly stellar. I did love the finish however, and this is all personal taste, obvs.
The Bunnahabhain is a knock-out however, and a great success at a recent tasting. It’s like a turbocharged Bunna, distilled from a selection of very grown-up puddings. It’s one for the winter nights, with all that warming spiced sweetness balanced by spikes of peat and salt. It’s a bit unusual and just straightforwardly gluggable and delicious. Highly recommended.
William Cadenhead 43-year-old Blended Whisky
Getting older is pretty annoying at the best of times, but if you’re a whisky fan then there’s a particular poignancy to every passing year (happy 2017!) making drinking whisky older than oneself more and more expensive and, eventually, impossible. It’s a sort of irresistible distilled spirit event horizon. Cheers to Cadenhead, then, for bringing out this blend that is both much older than me and remarkably reasonably-priced. I’m maybe OK for a few more years yet before being spaghettified.
The label doesn’t disclose much, but this is a blend of Glenlivet, Glenfarclas and Invergordon. All distilled in 1973.
Nose: Musty old sherry cask at first, clearing to a sweet and biscuity nose. Chocolate digestives, in fact. Buttermilk, rancio cognac, hay and walnuts. Nice! There’s this slight sense of PVA glue and conkers – very evocative of primary school!
Taste: Fresh and a little citrussy at first (cherry juice too, I think), then darkening into dried fruits, sherry and chocolate.
Finish: A really big, full finish. Roasted chestnuts and green walnuts. Brown sugar and orange liqueur. Earl Grey tea with lemon? A hint of smoke too, taking that tea in a more lapsang souchong direction.
I’ve tasted a fair few old whiskies that have died in the cask; either getting oaky and dry, or just losing any vitality or sparkle. This uisge is very much beatha though (with apologies to Gaelic speakers currently wincing!) and fresh as a daisy. It also somewhat resists study by being so easy to drink – it disappears at speed by the glassful. This is, obvs, a good thing, but you do sometimes feel that you should be mulling over every drop of ancient spirit rather than breezily quaffing it… Now, win the lottery and get in a stock of this as your daily dram: there’s a plan.
Teaninich – SMWS 59.54 ‘Elegant, classy and simply beautiful’ 32yo
(Distilled 8/11/83, ex-bourbon refill hogshead, 186 bottles, 50.5%)
It can be a funny time of year this, the slightly penumbral interlude between Christmas and the end of the year. It can also be a time when perhaps you are feeling a little bilious, and maybe avoiding even the mention of the demon drink.
To this latter point I say only this: pull yourself together. Some decent whisky is all you need, and here are my thoughts on a very decent one indeed – in fact my Christmas and birthday present to myself (with thanks to the SMWS for having a sale at the opportune moment). Also a whisky that’s fairly unfamiliar to me; I think I’ve only had one Teaninich before.
Nose: Smells old and Highlandy – by which I mean there’s a distinctly earthy and mineral quality here as well as copious fruitiness. So, there’s apple pie, Seville oranges, almonds and a little eucalyptus. Plant sap too – like cutting back fresh green growth in the spring – and yellow flowers. With time there’s an increasingly phenolic thing happening: wisps of coal and wood smoke, combined with a certain beeswaxiness. I’m reminded of old Clynelish, which is never a bad thing.
Taste: Lots of amazingly complex citrus at first: lemon syrup, lemon balm, fresh oranges, and the warm herbal oranginess of coriander seed. That slightly menthol hint from the nose is here too, and it goes into a sort of Middle Eastern rose petal and cinnamon pastilla direction. There’s honey, too, with the wax from the comb, almond milk and persimmon flesh.
Finish: Gets smokier again, combined with a sticky, dark and slightly herbal sweetness. Cough syrup and quite a bit of liquorice, plus preserved Chinese plums and blackcurrant pastilles. Smouldering desert sage and citronella. Leaves you with a long lingering aftertaste of walnut, mango, herbs and coal smoke.
There really is a lot going on with this one, but it does all weave together so beautifully. It’s one of those slightly magical whiskies where the development is not only long but also structured, so the changes happen in sequence on the palate. And that slight smokiness! I wasn’t expecting it from the SMWS’s notes, but what a lot that adds to the whole picture here.
So, certainly one for those of you who like older vintages of Highland malts like Clynelish, Glen Garioch and Glencadam, and about as good a whisky for seeing out the last days of this (let’s be honest, fairly ropy) year as you could hope for. I’m quite delighted with my self-giftage.
Glenburgie, 29yo 1985 Cadenhead’s Single Cask
(Distilled 1985, bottled 2014, bourbon hogshead, 222 bottles, 55.3%)
Not a lot of Glenburgie around (even less unsherried), and only on Cadenhead bottles will you still find the old-school “-Glenlivet” appellation…
Nose: Very typical fruity Speyside at first: banana, pineapple and ripe apples. Then more complex, darkly floral sweetness: orange zest with brown sugar, dried petals and nasturtiums, some light honey. A bit of strawberry jam after a while in the glass.
Taste: Big sugary muscovado sweetness, then an enormous wave of dried tangerine peel (wow!). This could be a warning sign of drying oak to come, but no, it’s super-lush. When it subsides you’re left with Turkish Delight and quince jellies covered with cinnamon and icing sugar.
Finish: This whisky has a surprisingly light and delicate mouthfeel – it really seems to just evaporate off the tongue. Some dark chocolate orange and posh mahogany woodiness linger.
Glenburgie is, I suppose, a middling sort of distillery; mostly making fodder for blends and not rocking too many boats. But well-aged in a decent cask it can, it seems, be spectacular. What’s so impressive is the combination of sheer heft and lightness of touch. It ends on such a fresh and lively note that you just want to go straight back for the next sip.
Close to flawless, even if – like me – you think Chocolate Oranges are proper grim!
Craigellachie – 17-years-old
(Batch # 98-ZC21, 46%)
Craigellachie used to be fairly obscure, but there seems to be more around these days from independent bottlers, and a new-ish all-prime-number-aged official line. The 23-year-old is, by the way, very nice indeed but insanely overpriced, and the 13 a bit meh. So let’s have a look at the middle entry in the range, resplendent in its faux-retro packaging.
Nose: The first thing that jumps out at me is a bit of sulphur. I’m going to assume that this is a result of the worm tubs that the bottle tells us Craigellachie use (see note below), although maybe there’s a bit of sherry cask in here too. The label doesn’t say anything about that. Indeed the base here is all coconut, vanilla and pineapple, all of which are more suggestive of American oak. It’s a combination that always reminds me of gorse flowers by the by, and there is a definite floral aspect to this nose. You also find a bit of apple tarte tatine, dried apricots, marzipan, and a hint of clay/putty.
Taste: Big and beefy. Malty and slightly smoky too. The vanilla, coconut and pineapple (grilled? with some black pepper?) are all still present, as well as a bit of toffee and nut sweetness. The floral character is now darker, going towards vetiver, and almost leaning towards the medicinal.
Finish: Lemon drops, almond milk, malt, and a faint smack of eau de cologne. Quite zesty and long.
Right, before I go on I’m just going to say that I have to applaud Craigellachie (or, well, the big mega-corp who own them…) for creating a range of official bottlings that really aren’t bland, polished or lacking in character. There’s a lot going on with this whisky. I’ll also say that we had this at a recent tasting and everyone there loved it.
I’m not totally in their camp unfortunately. I think this is a thoroughly decent dram with quite some personality, but I find the perfumey and coconut threads that goes through this whisky not to my liking. This point is, of course, a matter of taste, and you should try for yourself if you get the chance, although I think the rather steep current retail price (~£85) might do more to put you off.
Note: What are worm tubs, and how do they create sulphurous notes in whisky? Here’s a guide.
Craigduff – 32yo 1973 Signatory Cask Strength Collection
(Distilled 4/4/73, bottled 25/8/05, sherry butt #2513, 566 bottles, 49.4%)
Here’s something a little bit obscure. Craigduff was an experimental peated whisky made very briefly at either the Glen Keith or Strathisla distillery, apparently with condensed peaty water imported by boat from the Outer Hebrides. The latter sounds, quite frankly, logistically bonkers. In any case it was a short-lived experiment, and the few casks that existed seem to have all been bottled some time ago. So, is this a mere historical curiosity or a whisky that stands on its own merits?
Nose: Quite unusual! Old sherry – like the bottom barrel in a solera, musty with flor – and some peat. It’s not smoky peat though, but earthy, vegetal and smouldering. A little farmyardy, even. More conventionally there’s some sweet nuttiness that reminds me of those pink nougat bars with nuts. There’s some waxiness, or maybe it’s more resinous, going into mineral and limestone notes. Black treacle, dried apple rings, and a fair whack of menthol cigarette.
Taste: OK, I’m going to go off on a little reverie about going to see my grandparents in Ostfriesland as a child now, because this is so perfectly redolent of those memories. There’s German/Dutch tea, sweetened with hard crystals of brown sugar that get re-used from cup to cup, and the water from the peaty pools where you would swim alongside frogs and emerge tanned from the neck down. It’s all pretty tannic, I suppose, but not drying or unpleasant. Leaving my self-indulgent childhood maundering behind, there’s also a wee minty touch (like a mint you find in your coat pocket that has gone a bit soft), some smouldering hay, waxed orange and lemon. That resinous thing too – like mastic ice-cream.
Finish: Hints of banana fried in butter and brown sugar. Very tannic and candle-waxy. Some cough candy and the slight medicinal touch of those weird red mouth ulcer pastilles. Not long.
I have to say I love the nose of this whisky. It’s gorgeous, unusual and evocative. It’s not really too big a criticism, then, to say the taste doesn’t quite match up and the finish is a little weak. Overall it’s hugely drinkable, and hits some flavours that you don’t often encounter in whisky. Well worth trying if you get the chance, even if you don’t have fond personal memories of West Germany in the 1980s.
I would really like to compare this with Glen Keith and Strathisla from around the same period. So, if anyone would like to trade samples – *makes “call me” gesture*.
Cragganmore – SMWS 37.65 ‘Bursting with interest and imaginings’ 29yo
(Distilled 19/12/85, refill bourbon hogshead, 192 bottles, 46.5%)
I find I don’t have much to say about Cragganmore. It’s usually pretty good, although one of those whiskies that I’d struggle to pick out of a Speyside line-up.
Nose: Quintessentially old Speyside, and enormously attractive. There’s a fair bit of wood here, but it’s really old exotic hardwood, polished by years of use. Beyond that there’s a good deal of complexity: deep bergamot/kumquat citrus, honey biscuits, butterscotch, dried flowers, some tropical fruit … and breath in deeply to find some anise.
Taste: Wow, it’s lovely and just huge. Lots of deep, ripe fruitiness – starting with that orange and tropical fruit from the nose. There’s a bit of interesting buttermilk-type creaminess, so that you’re reminded of a mango lassi, with that balance of fruit and sourness. Toffee and wine gums, more conventionally.
Finish: It does one of those nifty whisky tricks of getting fuller and richer – almost chocolate malt – and then changing to a light and citrussy clean finish. There’s a bit of grapefruit peel, and that oak is there too (ever used that citrus fretboard stuff on an old guitar?), with just a hint of sucking on the stick after you finish an orange lolly.
Right, this is a proper cracker, but I will say that if you’re bothered by oak then maybe steer clear. Personally I think the wood is integrated really nicely all the way up to the end when it just pokes its head out a wee bit too much (that lolly stick you see…), but I find that to be a minor flaw. It’s never drying, which is the thing that I really dislike in oaky whiskies.
My final verdict really has to come down to the fact that I usually like to share whisky, but this one I have kept all to myself, and watched in dismay as it has disappeared all too fast. Selfish greed may not be the most noble or enlightened of aesthetic considerations, but, hell, it’s honest. Very highly recommended.
Bladnoch – 25yo 1990 Cadenhead’s Authentic Collection
(Distilled 1990, bottled February 2016, bourbon hogshead, 264 bottles, 50.7%)
Bladnoch is one of the few Lowlands distilleries to have survived the 20th century, and not without a great deal of turbulence. It has fallen silent more than once, and changed hands numerous times – most recently to an Australian “yoghurt mogul” who is revamping and relaunching the distillery.
We’ll have to wait a few years to know what this newest incarnation of Bladnoch will be like, but in the meantime there continue to be many older vintages bottled by the indies. In particular there seem to be an awful lot of 1990s around at the minute (the SMWS have been doing at least one a month for some time) and, in my experience, they are almost always excellent, while slightly later ones can be variable and sometimes strangely lactic. Maybe that’s what enticed the antipodean chap. Here, though, is a good example from Cadenhead’s.
Nose: Lovely, and a little idiosyncratic. There’s some lovely sweet citrus: lemon curd (there’s that dairy note, but very much under control and pleasant here) and candied grapefruit. It smells juicy and fresh. Beyond that there’s a butter/sugar/cinnamon thing happening that reminds me of Moroccan pastilla, and some canned pears (one of those beurre types, if you like, to keep the theme). A tiny medicinal touch too: not Islay-style iodine, but more gauze from a first aid box.
Taste: Big, rich butteriness at first, rapidly overtaken by very zesty lemon. There’s some really nice olive oil there too, to complete the Mediterranean feel. Pears again, and some of those orange and lemon boiled sweets with the liquid centre.
Finish: The fruit becomes more tropical: we’re into passionfruit cheesecake territory. I think I even get the biscuit base, but my imagination may be running away with me. In any case it’s a lovely long, fruity, deep finish.
I must have tried a dozen or so of these bourbon hogshead 1990 Bladnochs now, and what’s interesting is how different they can be. For the same distillate filled into the same type of cask at around the same time, I mean. I feel a bit like I should be collecting them all, since stocks will – inevitably – run dry at a certain point. It’s a great plan except, oh yes: money. Wealthy benefactors may feel free to get in touch.
Everyone who’s interested in whisky should have at least one, though, and you can’t go far wrong with this bottling. It’s a textbook example, straight down the middle of a style that I don’t really think you’ll find in many other places – maybe not even at Bladnoch these days. It is also, leaving aside the context, straightforwardly delicious.
Tomintoul – 39yo 1973 The Day of Pearly Spencer
(Distilled 23/2/73, bottled December 2012, cask #1486, 46.6%)
Right, I shall start off this review with a confession of ignorance: I really know nothing about this bottling. Why is it named after a sixties song by Northern Irish troubadour David McWilliams? Answers on a postcard please.
What I can tell you is that Tomintoul is a fairly young distillery, founded in the 1960s, and marketed as “the gentle dram”. A lot of casks from those early days seem to have made it through to quite an advanced age before being bottled, like this one.
Nose: It’s a very quiet, elegant nose that takes some time to unpack. It’s also incredibly fresh for a whisky pushing 40-years-old; there’s no deadening woodiness here. What you do get is an almost old-Tomatin-esque fruitiness: mainly stone fruits, but with some strawberry. Some light vanilla and brioche notes too. (Greengage jam on a croissant. Maybe?) A slight menthol touch in the background.
Taste: Really almost identical to the nose, only with the fruitiness going in a more tropical direction. There are just a few touches of peppery spice and some lemon zest, with something floral too. Again, freshness and lightness rule.
Finish: A bit richer at the end, with more honey and caramel, plus some hints of chocolate and black tea. Hints only, mind you. Not a long finish, but fades out nicely on quite a herbal note (those Ricola sweets I think), with a guava-ish sort of aftertaste.
This really is a gentle dram, and – shush! – one which whispers rather than shouts. Don’t, whatever you do, try this after anything more robust – it’ll be drowned out entirely. If you listen, though, there’s an awful lot of enjoy, and it’s a tale of the occasional benefits of subtlety over complexity. Well worth trying should the opportunity arise.
Nikka Pure Malt Black
We haven’t looked at a Japanese whisky for a while (and with the way prices are going it might be a while before the next one…) so here’s a good one. This is a blend of malts from the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries – as the name suggests this doesn’t contain any grain whisky as blends tend to do.
Nose: Look up ‘Japanese Coffee Candy’ because a) it’s delicious and b) it smells exactly like this whisky. There’s also some sweet peat and light smoke, with some subtle clove spice. Quite a lot of fruitiness going on, with more lemon notes coming to the fore with time. Behind all that there’s a background savoury umami quality to be found – maybe dried mushrooms? Really lovely in any case.
Taste: A bit peatier than you might expect. It’s chewy and oily in the mouth, with sherry, coffee and lemon. Lots of sweet and juicy red fruits.
Finish: Quite short and somewhat dry. Dark chocolate and coffee develop more, and then some slight salt and smoke lingers.
I love the coffee that runs right through this whisky, and I think the balancing and blending of sherry and peat is done spectacularly well. What’s also impressive is that it has a distinct individual character – it’s only vaguely reminiscent of a few Scotch whiskies, and doesn’t suffer unduly from the comparison. It does suffer, however, from a weak-ish finish, but you can forgive that when everything else works a treat.
I almost didn’t get a picture of this before it all disappeared, and while – in my defence – it is only a small bottle, I still think you can take that as a solid recommendation.
Auchroisk – 20yo
(Bottled 2010, American and European oak, 5856 bottles, 58.1%)
In general the pseudo-retro thing in whisky is a bugbear of mine, but I have to say that this label is a good example of how to do it right. Still super-fakey for a distillery that was only founded in the 1970s however!
Other useful Auchroisk facts:
1) It’s pronounced something like “or-thrusk”.
2) The name means “shallow ford over the red stream”, which seems to be a lot of information to be conveyed with just two syllables, but Gaelic is magic like that.
3) The distillery is, as I said, quite recent and built in quite a cool asymmetrical Modernist style. Have a look on Google Images.
Nose: Interestingly when this bottle was first opened it was incredibly buttery and fudgy, but that has settled down as a bit of air has got in. It’s still there, however, along with some coffee and walnut whips, but now better balanced with some fruity notes: roasted dark plums, orange blossom water and orange syrup. There’s a little touch of something herbal/medicinal in the background – a bit Fisherman’s Friends-ish? It comes out a bit more when you add water.
Taste: Again, quite fudgy and creamy. There’s some sweet fruits too – candied lemon, pineapple, orange – balanced with a slightly bitter herbal note. It’s very pleasing. Toasted brioche too, which is just grand.
Finish: Really long, with lots of interesting little things happening. There’s mint, and a vaguely floral in the background. Faint liquorice, and more distinct green coffee.
A big whisky, this, like a classic Speysider with a supercharger. It’s the little subtle complexities that make it though: it has personality.
Well worth seeking out (this is a bottling from 2010), and I believe there will be a new official 25yo bottling this year.
Caol Ila – 17yo 1991 Murray McDavid
(Bourbon & Chenin Blanc Quarts de Chaume casks, 2025 bottles, 46%)
Yeah, blimey, look at the colour of that. Murray McDavid (who seemed to disappear for a few years but are now active again) do have a thing for interesting casks – in this case a sweet white wine from the Loire.
Nose: A great nose that’s very changeable. There’s strawberry jam, red cherry sweets and liquorice. Lemons, apples and banana with cream. It’s a bit nutty, and gets more lemony with time. Behind all that it’s distinctly saline, with hints of coal smoke and carbolic.
Taste: Much smokier and peatier than the nose suggests. Salt, bitter herbs and tart lemon – a bit Laphroaigy actually. Tea made over a peat fire. Tropical fruit comes out more the longer you spend with it.
Finish: Strong salty liquorice/salmiak – complete with the fizzy tongue-tingling ammonium chloride quality. Loads of coal tar. Some good vinous/grape notes right at the end that linger on for ages.
What a misleading nose! It’s all fruity sweetness in the streets, peaty monster in the sheets. (Yes, I made a pop culture reference. Deal with it.) And, in fact, it’s a nose that reminds me of much older Caol Ilas (such as this 31yo I reviewed a while back), even as the taste is more youthful and aggressive. It all hangs together nicely though, and it’s one of those whiskies that rewards a bit of time and exploration. Not a relaxing dram, but a sort of good-natured brute that will appeal to anyone who likes the smokier side of Islay.
Ledaig, SMWS 42.18 Purple Relaxation 9yo
(Distilled 5/10/06, refill ex-bourbon barrel, 234 bottles, 59.3%)
People seems to be catching on to the quality of modern Ledaig, possibly only hindered by confusion over how it should be pronounced. Google and you’ll be confronted with confident assertions that it’s “led-chig”, “lay-dayg”, “let-chick” or several other possibilities. No wonder the distillery where this whisky is produced changed their name to Tobermory…
Nose: For a young, peaty and very strong whisky this is amazingly gentle. It’s sweetly herbal, with thyme, lavender and hops; plus a few Love Hearts and Parma Violets. There’s a definite maritime edge too, with some seaside pebbles, chalk and driftwood. A minute or two in the glass brings out an increasing musky melon-type fruitiness.
Taste: Sweet, smoky and mellow – even at nearly 60%. There’s a bit of ale, and then pretty much everything from the nose. The fruitiness is more pronounced, however, and almost jammy with plums, peach and cherry. There’s a slightly fizzy Parma Violet / Flying Saucer thing happening too.
Finish: Long. Sweet and slightly salty. You’re left with an aftertaste of lavender, rooibos and chamomile tea.
I ordinarily wouldn’t even think of drinking a whisky of this strength neat – let alone one that’s peated and fairly young – but it’s somehow entirely approachable and even, as the label suggests, calming. You can chuck in loads of water if you like and it hardly makes a difference. It must be the spirit talking, as there’s barely any cask influence here after nine years in a refill barrel.
However it’s done this – like most of the similar Ledaigs I’ve tried – is a great whisky, and very solid value for money at the moment. Let’s not pretend we’re wafting in rarified airs where that isn’t a consideration! If you’re a fan of peaty whiskies you really should give this a try.
Royal Brackla – 30yo 1984 Cadenhead’s Single Cask
(Bourbon hogshead, 192 bottles, 54.1%)
Brackla used to be very obscure – there was even uncertainty about whether it was technically in Speyside or the Highlands for a time – but they’re recently released some official bottlings (none of which I have tried, or even seen, as yet) so maybe they’ll become better known. I think that everyone now agrees it is a Highlands distillery at least…
Nose: Very soft, subtle and complex. I’d go as far as “classy” even. Madeleines, marmalade and Earl Grey tea. Gives the impression of being “old”, like a study filled with leather, wood and pipe smoke (or maybe one of those leather sofas by the fireplaces at The Vaults in Leith!). A beautiful hickory wood smokiness too, just hanging in the background. Some liquorice and dark fruits (think fruits of the forest) too. Just gorgeous.
Taste: Those fruits are right upfront: blueberries and blackberries. Then you get some sharper fruits: orange, apple and lemon drops. There’s a lovely long liquorice note that runs right through it on into the finish. Lots of subtleties here, but it’s really cohesive. That’s three decades in a good cask for you. Water is not needed, in fact I prefer it without.
Finish: Peppery and liquoricey. More oranges. Dark chocolate. Lots of smoked almonds. Not massively long, but just insanely pleasant.
This is so far up my alley that it has knocked over the bins. A really memorable, perfectly balanced and simply delicious old whisky.
Springbank – 15yo 1999 rum barrel Whisky Broker / The Gallipoli Association
(Distilled 8/10/99, bottled 29/10/14, demerara rum barrel #300, 52.8%)
Nose: Somewhat rummy, but very definitely sweet and buttery. Think shortbread biscuits covered with crunchy brown sugar. Behind that, though, are both really sharp fruit notes (limes, rosehip syrup, unripe plums) and, while it’s not obviously peaty, some dirty smokiness (tobacco ash, a bit of oil and petrol). It’s certainly interesting, and distinctly Campbeltown. With time in the glass it gets more green and leafy.
Taste: A very oily texture (here’s the Springbank asserting itself) and quite “chewy” in the mouth. Some raisins, lemon, pineapple and vanilla. It’s quite a sharp fruitiness, but gets a touch sweeter as it develops. There’s a bit of dark chocolate in the mix too.
Finish: Lingering ash, but also some nice custardy notes with some burnt sugar sweetness. Think crème brûlée, or rum mixed with buttermilk. More raisins, and a bit of coffee and unrefined sugar at the end.
I’m really glad I held off reviewing this, as it has improved a great deal with a bit of time: a lesson in giving whisky a bit of air, and not rushing to judgement. What was a bit astringent and unbalanced in the first couple of drams from the bottle has become mellow, and now the slight bitterness works as a foil to the richer development and finish.
Don’t come to this whisky expecting some sort of sweet dark rum extravaganza – it’s more like a defiantly un-sweet “grown-up” dessert – but give it some time and you’ll have a ball.
Clynelish – 18yo 1996 The Whisky Exchange / Signatory
(Distilled 28/6/96, bottled 8/4/15, refill sherry butt #6509, 606 bottles, 55.5%)
I am – as you’re probably fed up of hearing, and with a fair dollop of understatement – something of a Clynelish fan. The wobble, though, in this happy relationship has been with sherry. Specifically that maturing Clynelish in sherry casks frequently seems to be a dodgy proposition. It can work, but as often as not it just doesn’t jive, at least for me.
(In fact I have a terrible sherried Clynelish somewhere that I’ll review one day just for the LOLs. Seriously, it’s a stinker.)
Just as an aside I’ll note that whereas there seems to be an endless lake of 1997 Clynelish to be bottled this is one of the very few 1996s I’ve come across. I wonder why that is?
Nose: Musty and vinous at first nosing – we’re in an old sherry solera. A bit of dried mushroom too, or maybe rather that umami-rich liquid you get when they’ve been rehydrated. There are some fresher menthol notes too, merging into the more typically deep sherry chocolate (After Eight, anyone?). There’s a floral sweetness going on, but you have to dig for it a bit amid earthy bark and dried leaves. There’s a little bit of apple too.
Taste: Great development on this. It starts on pure Clynelish – lemony and waxy and crystal clear – then big waves of liquorice (Pontefract cake), cocoa, nutmeg and some more of that After Eight-type mintiness. A whiff of clove cigarette. There’s fruitiness too – hard to say what exactly, but it plays its part in the whole and keeps everything lighter than you might expect. Certainly gets very orangey as it goes on – almost a bit old Dalmore-esque.
Finish: Very long indeed. Loads of walnuts (I doubt the butt contained amontillado – but there’s definitely some of that dry nuttiness…) and dark chocolate. Still lots of orange, waxed. Ends (eventually) on a charming little Turkish Delight note – where did that come from?
I came into this thing sceptical, but in this case the sherry / Clynelish pairing is utterly simpatico. It’s a big feller, but with a surprisingly light step. One of those bottles you don’t want to get to the bottom of, and a very well-judged selection by the Whisky Exchange.
Dailuaine – SMWS 41.65 “Sweet couscous with Argan oil”
(30yo, distilled 25/9/84, refill ex-bourbon hogshead, 86 bottles, 48.5%)
Following on from my mini-review of the recent official Dailuaine Special Release (spoiler: I really liked it) here’s another well-aged one, from an indie bottler this time. Dailuaine seems to need a bit of age to shine.
Nose: Very lovely, but very non-obvious. Immediate impressions are of waxy wood polish, candles and lots of olive oil – the really good extra virgin stuff that’s grassy, lemony and slightly peppery. Sort of herbal. With time you do start to get some dried fruit and creaminess: an Eccles cake drizzled with some condensed milk, perhaps. (Possibly not my poshest tasting note, that…). A little bit of flambéed banana too maybe?
Taste: Really interesting creaminess without much sweetness. Maybe frozen Greek yogurt, or that Turkish milk dessert with rosewater. More exotic spice notes develop: we’re into milky chai masala with lots of cardamom now. There’s some cashew and almond too. The strength is perfect – don’t add water.
Finish: A spike of sharp fruitiness: lemon, green mango and peach. Then lots more of those spices (but no spiciness, if you see what I mean) – cloves and mace – and some Fry’s Turkish Delight. Refreshing and long-ish finish with some Mini-Milk lollies (again, not posh) and ginger sorbet.
What’s amazing to me is that this is a Dailuaine matured in the same type of cask for a similar length of time, and yet it’s so very different to the Special Release. (In price too – this one is much more reasonable!) There’s a bit of overlap in the spices that you find, but their expression is quite distinct, and there’s none of the SR’s honeyed fruity sweetness.
Amazing thing #2 is that this is a big, complex and old whisky that nevertheless is really quaffable. It’s refreshing and palate-cleansing in the same way that drinks like lassi, doogh or ayran are, and my bottle has been going down abominably quickly. I’ve noticed that I’ve been less generous than usual with sharing this one too, and you can’t get a much more honest assessment than unalloyed greed! Highly, if selfishly, recommended.
Lagavulin – 16
Here’s a malt that probably needs no introduction, and one that – since it was the first Islay whisky I ever tried – has a bit of sentimental baggage for me. I’ll try to be stalwart and impartial in my notes though!
Nose: It’s been a while since I’ve tried the 16 (other than a few late-night drams out-and-about when I – horror! – wasn’t taking notes) but you get that great combination of Malaga raisins with rubber boots and a tiny drop of iodine and everything comes flooding back. There are kippers somewhere, and some walnuts and marzipan. A few drops of orange juice, some pipe tobacco, brine, toffee. There’s a lighter, almost floral, aniseed thing going on which is new.
Taste: Salty and orangey. Some bitter herbal touches (Fisherman’s Friends?) and smoked bacon. There’s some chocolate and slight menthol.
Finish: Salty and smoky – tea made over a peat fire on a beach. A little dark chocolate, and some fleeting sweet fruit and vanilla. Cough candy, maybe. Long and balanced.
Familiarity can, as we’re often told, breed contempt, but I think we should be delighted with the ubiquity of this whisky. Even dodgy pubs and indifferent restaurants tend to have a bottle, and it’s leagues ahead of its likely companions on the most insalubrious of drinks shelves.
We’re also frequently told that Lagavulin is “not as good as it used to be” and while, of course, everything has been going downhill since we came down from the trees I can’t say I see it. This bottle seems a little sweeter and fresher than the last one I had a few years back (almost like a bit of the 12-year-old Special Release has seeped in…) but memory is fallible. I’m not doing an A/B comparison, and neither should you – just enjoy this thoroughbred whisky still going strong after all these years.
Glen Spey – 21 year old
(Distilled 1989, bottled 2010, first-fill American oak, 5844 bottles, 50.4%)
Bit like buses, Glen Spey. I’d never tried one until recently, but since then several have crossed my path. They’ve all been pretty good too, so this might be yet another obscure Speyside distillery that’s worth keeping an eye out for.
Nose: Old Speyside. Fruit (dried apricots, stewed oranges, peaches) backed with an aromatic woodiness. Cigar humidor (very much so), and crushed walnut and almond shells. A bit of stale gingerbread – like the inside of a lebkuchen – and a tiny aniseed hint.
Taste: Again, very classically Speyside – nothing really jumps out as unusual, but everything is balanced and in its place. Honey, strawberry, apple and dried pineapple. A little vanilla and liquorice. The strength is perfect, and water actually diminishes it a bit.
Finish: Not very long, but refreshingly clear, clean, grassy and spearminty. Honey and a touch of orange reappear right at the end.
This is a tremendously elegant whisky, and one in which the lack of any great complexity is far from a defect. It has poise, and even seems a bit more mature than the age indicates. Straightforward, honest, well-made and delicious whisky.
Glen Scotia, 19yo 1991 Scott’s Selection
(Distilled 1991, bottled 2010, 58.7%)
I have a soft spot for Glen Scotia – the plucky underdogs of Campbeltown that they are. And when it comes to indie bottlings you never quite know what you’re going to get. We’re a long way from safe middle-of-the-road malts here, and if anything Glen Scotia can occasionally be a bit too characterful and wild. (Here’s a mini-review of a particularly bonkers one from a while ago). That uncertainty is compounded in this case by the bottler – Scott’s, of whom I know nothing – providing the consumer with hardly any information. There’s a lot of text on the bottle, yes, but it’s either meaningless (and slightly misleading, actually) marketing bumf or entirely pointless. “Matured in oakwood casks”? Thanks for that chaps.
Nose: So, as I say, there’s no info given on the label – but this is a particular kind of funky sherry cask. Really savoury, with beef jerky, dried mushrooms, tamarind and balsamic vinegar. HP Sauce, really. There’s really quite a lot of mint / menthol too, with some aniseed in the background. Behind all that there’s a really nice fruity note holding it together – banana and strawberry jam.
Taste: Big, rounded, liquoricey. Pipe tobacco, nuts and Pontefract cake. The mint and savoury vinegar notes from the nose are still there, balanced by sweetness, and with some orangey coriander seed. Prune juice, with blackcurrant cordial and pickled blackberries (if there even is such a thing). A dash of Vimto, even! Manchester representing.
Finish: Dark chocolates with cherry and strawberry centres. Raw brown sugar, rum’n’raisin, a bit of lapsang souchong. Pleasantly dry and very long.
There’s lots of big, rich, savoury stuff going on here, but it’s balanced beautifully with some fruity acidity and bright menthol. It’s also a whisky that develops and opens up in the glass wonderfully – and one that has only improved as the bottle has gone down. Glen Scotia: never dull.
Dalmore – 24yo 1990 Cadenhead’s Rum Cask
(Distilled 1990, bottled July 2015, in a rum cask since 2006, 468 bottles, 54.9%)
I will admit to a certain scepticism about wacky cask finishing (ACEing or finessing or whatever you would like to call it). I’m a simple soul at heart, and I don’t like monkey business. Having said that – indie Dalmore (see note below) is usually a solid deal, Cadenhead’s bottle some great rums (I assume this was finished in one of their own casks), and nine years in a rum cask is somewhat different from sticking some sub-standard juice into a cask that’s had a bit of sherry briefly splashed around in it. So, I will approach this with optimism and a spring in my step.
Nose: Immediately there’s a charred sugarcane rumminess going on, and beyond that just loads and loads of oranges. Then, huh, some metallic notes (copper, freshly cleaned with Brasso) and something earthy and dirty. Bit Campbeltown, actually. There’s some tropical fruit too, again a bit dirty and fetid – hints of durian maybe. After a while in the glass some green leafiness emerges.
Taste: Big, thick, syrupy and chewy mouthfeel. Wow. There’s still lots of orange, combined with the dense and dark semi-sweetness of unrefined sugar, and then some scorched smokiness. It’s quite an oily, dirty (that word again) sort of smokiness, with some Army & Navy sweets mixed in. After the arrival it becomes very menthol-ish suddenly, even a bit minty, and then…
Finish: …a big wave of smoky liquorice. It’s very slightly salty too, like a mix of Pontefract cakes and Salmiak. Lingers for a good long while on that, combined with treacle toffee and tangerine peel.
I wasn’t too sure about the nose on this, but it really works on the palate. The finish in particular works hugely well, with a lovely long slow development and enough freshness to keep all the big, bold, dark flavours from becoming too much. The best rum-finished whisky I’ve had: recommended.
(Note #1: I recently spoke to a chap from Dalmore who told me that they no longer provide whisky to independent bottlers, so bottlings like this are likely to become increasingly rare in the future.)
(Note #2: I’ve been informed that this was matured in a 1970s demerara rum cask. Thanks to @zenlabyrinth)