As decades have rolled by the world of sherried whisky has changed dramatically. The days when old oloroso shipping casks were a primary vessel for Scotch storage have shifted to a point where the bourbon barrel is now king, with sherry maturation dominated by so called "bespoke" casks, seasoned with fresh sherry, tiered solera casks or sometimes those dressed with paxarette. These changes have affected both the flavour and perception of sherry influenced whisky dramatically, be it the clearly sulphur tainted examples we find, or the unavoidable comparisons to the remarkable Macallan whiskies, Glenfarclas or Springbank sherry monsters distilled before the mid 70s. While all whisky has changed, well-sherried malts have seen a particularly notable transformation.
Glendronach is another distillery marked by the use of ex-sherry casks, being perhaps the shining light of the style over the last few years. The 1972 single casks have led this charge, every bit as truly exceptional as the best of those previously mentioned and just as desirable for it. While, as was bee commented in our review of the Glendronach Grandeur, it’s clearly difficult to avoid focussing on such staggeringly good single cask bottlings, there is much to recommend in the distillery’s more accessible wares. The 15 year old Glendronach was particularly well received after the range was re-launched under the guiding hand of Billy Walker’s BenRiach Distillery Company, showing a wonderfully old-style sherried personality. Some batches have displayed a little more sulphur than would please certain tasters though and speaking personally it is this 18 year old, named “Allardice” in honour of the distillery’s founder, that has held greater consistency.
There are many distilleries that have spent most of their lives under the radar, quietly producing quality single malt for filling into blends, but scarcely ever being championed in their own right. Of course, as whisky has grown in popularity and more enterprising, highly knowledgeable independent bottlers develop their businesses, whisky fans get a chance to experience malts that only ten years ago were rarely available. Some of these have rapidly built a reputation for quality, Dailuaine whisky (pronounced Dall-Yoo-Ain) is a worthy case in point.
There have been plenty of decent examples of the distillery issued by a whole raft of bottlers but, for this taster at least, the older examples have regularly offered the greater consistence of quality. Dailuaine produces a make of fair weight and pungency it seems but the bottlings often vary in character, some being surprisingly delicate and restrained, while the occasional official releases (Dailuaine 16 year old Flora and Fauna, Rare Malts etc) have focussed on refill sherry maturation which fuses with the weighty spirit to offer a richer take on the spirit character. I have spoken of Asta Morris with much affection in the past; this could well be a nice example of a distillery that continues to grow a league of admirers.
In the main this blog has so far focussed on recent, if not always widely available bottlings from both the distilleries themselves and Independent bottlers alike. Those that are generally only seen within the walls of an auction house or, if you are lucky, poured at the hands of a dear and probably quite affluent friend have so far been neglected. Not so today though, as it feels like as good a time as any for something very special indeed. Bottlings like this 12 year old White Horse Lagavulin offer a rare, often deeply delicious chance to build some sense of the way in which whisky has changed over the years.
Lagavulin whiskies certainly enjoy one of the most consistently fine reputations of any single malt, the now classic Lagavulin 16 year old is a staple tipple for a great many whisky lovers and every bit deserving of such a position. The distillery must surely be one of the most beautiful and evocative in Scotland but, in a production sense, it was a very different place when the spirit that found a home in these White Horse bottlings was distilled. Flowing from the stills in the mid-late 1960s, this Lagavulin pertains from a time of on-site floor maltings and a much more hands on approach to production, something the whisky itself lays bare with stark clarity.
Knockdhu was always a fairly unsung single malt but for a faithful few who held it fondly, and if the old limited edition cask strength 23 year old was anything to go by, they had every reason to. Now the whisky finds itself branded as anCnoc – to avoid confusion with Knockando distillery – and is given a much greater presence within the single malt market. The positive reviews are flowing, the awards quotas growing and interest in the distillery has never been higher, which is certainly great news for this small and rather beautiful distillery.
As was touched upon in last week’s musing on Balblair whisky, marketing and people, this trajectory of rejuvenation is a common theme among the distilleries in the Inverhouse stable. Maybe even Balmenach has a similar future to look forward to? The anCnoc range has centred around an often under-rated anCnoc 12 year old, a yearly vintage and a good quality 16 year old over the last years. Older examples had rested on an enjoyable, if slightly tired 30 year old distilled in 1975. This new anCnoc 35 year old effectively replaces that old, leathery gent and brings with it some ultra-modern, crisply designed packaging.
The ups and downs of the whisky world are very much in evidence in this month’s selection of staff picks. Distilleries open, grow, get mothballed, decline, close, re-emerge and change hands throughout their colourful histories. The four brands on offer here each have a story to tell that illustrates this perfectly.
A few year’s back the idea of a distillery in India producing world class single malt would have been inconceivable, yet now we have Amrut whisky by a distillery very much in its ascendancy and doing just that.
Visiting distilleries is rarely anything less than a pleasure and a recent trip to the small, East-Highland distillery of Balblair was far from an exception. The rolling landscape of Ross-shire, persistent Highland rain and warm, bright eyed welcome of the staff on such a trip is instantly disarming in its charm, but as a somewhat hardened and faintly cynical whisky lover there is always a sense that things may be less than they seem.
This critical eye of concern is evident all over the whisky world, be it a blogger lamenting the loss of staff and weather beaten worm tubs or the misty eyed, pipe smoking malt-scribe mourning the fading memory of a dramming bell. Such romanticised, evocative regrets are often more than mere wistful idealism though, after all for many a bottle backed by a quaint highland tale of history and permanence there is a computer, an expansion plan and sadly, compromises in quality.
Putting aside the dubious nature of regional flavour profiles in Scotch, it’s probably fair to suggest that the active Lowland distilleries receive the least attention of any. In the past the styles of whisky being produced in the borders of Scotland were fairly wide ranging, with the likes of St Magdalene distillery and Littlemill producing a spirit that diverges greatly from what is often marketed as the “classic” Lowland style today. Auchentoshan distillery typifies the light, sweet and clean spirit character that is now associated with the region, and while it has some firm followers it is sometimes passed over as a pleasant but ultimately unremarkable single malt.
This entry level distillery bottling might not be the best selection should we wish to dispel the distillery’s reputation for mediocrity, but before we charge into more unusual and older examples of Auchentoshan’s output its worth taking a look at what is a good quality, highly accessible Auchentoshan 12 year old. After all, this type of bottling is a platform for discovering the joys of whisk(e)y, and filtration and colouring apart you could certainly do worse than a dram of this over rocks on a warm summer’s day, or as an introduction for those who might find your cask strength Ardbeg just a little overpowering.
The island of Jura is a place of deep beauty, feeling far more remote and isolated than its neighbouring Islay and where this Island of peat is home to eight celebrated distilleries Jura boasts only one. It is a significant one in the U.K market though and, in its 10 year old form, is a staple among widely available supermarket malts. However, even with this undoubted success and some peated releases to draw extra interest, Jura whisky remains quite unloved beyond casual whisky drinkers.
The quality of the standard range has risen markedly in recent years, yet only the older official bottlings and interesting examples from the Independents pique the interest of many. Personally I can understand some of the misgivings associated with the Jura 10 year old, but have tasted a few beautiful old Jura’s in the past and feel the distillery often gets rather unfairly overlooked. This is where quality cask selection comes in of course and, having spoken about the Jura Archive bottlings before, we can pour this one with quite some optimism.
After May’s review of the Glenfarclas 21 year old, it was never going to be long before we began to delve deeper into the distillery’s incomparably vast selection of bottlings to taste the sort of drams that typify Glenfarclas whiskies; long-aged, rich and deeply sherried. The 60s are often thought to have produced some of the distillery’s greatest moments (check out Luc Timmermans’ 1968 bottlings) so this ‘66 seemed like a fair place to start what (I hope) will be the first of many Family Cask reviews.
Glenfarclas is one of the few distilleries that can reach these advanced ages with considerable ease, even perhaps requiring great lengths of maturation for the best of its richly oily, sherry-oak-friendly spirit to develop. However, this type of whisky isn’t for everyone and while many people adore an old “sherry monster” such as this, others can find the cask influence erodes the spirit character while the age adds too much resinous oak. Personally, I often find myself in the mood for such bottlings and though many tread a fine line, few distilleries pull the style off with the regularity of Glenfarclas.
Last time we reviewed a BenRiach whisky on the blog it was a prime example of the sheer brilliance of the distillery’s output during the mid-70s. There’s no question that such bottlings are joy to taste and that any opportunity to do so should not be missed, but there is more to this reinvigorated Speyside distillery than the uber-fruity oldies. For around 25 years the distillery has done that which is quite unusual outside of the Scottish Islands and produced batches of peated spirit, originally intended for blending.
Since being taken over in 2004 BenRiach has gone from relative obscurity to a position of great importance as a single malt, thus drawing great interest in their slumbering stock of casks. The peated releases might not have gathered quite the following of the very best single casks, but there is no denying that they show a character all their own, being clearly set apart from the Islay whiskies with little medicinal or coastal presence.