The good chaps at Caskstrength.net (over on the blogroll of course) issued their first bottling last year and have since professed a desire to bottle an A-Z of scotch. As such, the first release came from the Isle of Arran distillery, and a particularly good example it most certainly was. This time around Neil and Joel have selected an enticing BenRiach whisky and given my oft-mentioned fondness for the distillery, expectations are rather high.
You never quite know what to expect from BenRiach, from the ‘70s fruit bombs to the unusual finishes and peated examples it’s quite the enigma. Here we have a young/mid aged example that has spent some time in a Pedro Ximenez influenced cask. PX is an incredibly concentrated, intense style of sherry and can quite easily overwhelm a delicate spirit. Judging from the colour, such issues are unlikely here and with luck this should be a fitting follow up to that lovely Arran.
It’s time for another monthly meander through some of our favourites, old and new. It seems summer is finally making its presence felt as we focus on fresh, delicately composed whiskies, two of which are ideal for mixing (there’s even a cocktail recipe). With that in mind it comes as no surprise that we are featuring a couple of blends and two bottlings from the sometimes stereotypically delicate Irish whiskey category.
For us at least, we are talking about an English summer so it’s best to also make provision for the odd (cough) rainy day. Such duties are covered by a rather lovely and typically sherried Glendronach that is already a favourite of many a maltophile. There’s a real spread of prices on show here as well and I felt, given that two of this month’s selections are under £20, I would go slightly mad and totally blow the budget on what is perhaps the crown jewel of the Irish Pot Still revival. Enjoy!
After touching upon the official releases of Jura distillery in July’s Review of the excellent Isle of Jura 1988 Archives label, it’s about time we get around to tasting one. Things have changed for the standard 10 year old in recent years, progressing from being the butt of many a whisky-snob joke to one of the best-selling single malts in the U.K. Some of this must surely be down to its notable presence on supermarket shelves, but not all. The quality has risen markedly in recent batches, and while it still hasn’t shaken away all negative associations, it’s gaining in credibility as a result.
That aside, things do still remain hazy for Jura if it is to be a brand aimed at serious whisky lovers. It’s a common theme with the distilleries owned and marketed by Whyte and Mackay; colouring, chill-filtration, low bottling strengths, they all serve to put off those who prefer their whisky a little more natural. In my experience Jura is at its best when allowed greater time in the wood, so let us start with the Jura 16 year old, perhaps the distillery’s unusual, beguiling character will shine in-spite of the aforementioned curtailments.
Where do you start with a distillery like Springbank? A surviving bastion of old fashioned whisky making, flagship for what was once Scotland’s most prolific distilling Campbeltown region and producer of some of the most legendary whisky ever distilled. It’s an impressive resume without question and for anyone who tastes the very best bottlings, one that translates to quite incredibly beautiful, amazingly complex whiskies. Those most desirable, now highly collectable, releases such as the ’66 Local Barley, Millenium Set, Cadenhead dumpies and even the old Springbank 21 year old botltings are ideal examples which simply must be tasted to be believed. Fear not though, you don’t have to take on a second mortgage or befriend an old millionaire with possibly dubious intentions to enjoy the distillery’s wares.
Modern Springbank is perhaps the last stronghold of truly old school mineral, sooty, difficult whisky left in Scotland, remaining beautifully characterful and densely oily. Much of this is surely down to the on-site floor maltings, direct firing and total absence of automation that still proliferates at Springbank distillery. This adherence to “the old ways”, while most of the industry moves in another direction, makes this distillery deeply important to anyone who values this style of whisky making. This is the first Springbank review to feature on the blog though, so this time round we’re tasting an oldie that could potentially be quite special. The reputation of ‘60s Springbank has already been mentioned as something rather spectacular and this ’65 bottling from Murray McDavid seems like a fitting place to begin.
Littlemill is a name that some will be quite unfamiliar with, however given a brace of excellent casks reaching the market over the last few months that is surely set to change. This sadly closed Lowland distillery once held a claim to being the oldest in Scotland but after difficulties during the industry’s early/mid 80s slump and further problems just a decade later, 1994 would see its final runs of spirit. For a time it looked like a revival remained possible, but after much of the plant was dismantled in 1996 and a fire ravaged the site further in 2004, this faint hope seems less likely than ever.
Towards the end of its life Littlemill distillery saw some exposure as a single malt, though on the strength of an unremarkable 8 and 12 year old it failed to draw great praise. Things are changing now though, as the spirit distilled in the late 80s and early 90s comes of age and finds its way into the hands of the best independent bottlers. Recently we have seen a mix of fairly naked, zesty releases alongside examples with a much greater sherry influence. Both styles have their own merits of course and in the end it’s a matter of taste, but it’s hard to deny that the best sherry casks find a fantastic balance between edgy citrus and a polished, fruity roundness.
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.