As a whisky writer, I have the privilege of receiving invitations to a multitude of events, allowing me the opportunity to sample a wide variety of fine and rare whisky. While my passion for whisky would ideally lead to comprehensive articles for each event and whisky, the constraints of time render this impractical. Consequently, I will be introducing a column to provide succinct summaries of my impressions. These reviews will be complemented by tasting notes for samples that I have brought back to my office or have been sent to me.
I shall continue to write in-depth feature articles, reserving them for occasions when I have had the privilege of visiting the distillery or when a particularly exceptional release demands a more extensive piece.
Berry Bros & Rudd
The oldest wine merchant in the world does not rest on its laurels - in fact, it is positively progressive and noteworthy in the whiskies it releases under its own brand. In the past few weeks two distinct ranges have been launched, one of which, the Pioneers collection, I shall be writing about in more depth very soon. It focuses on championing sustainability with 10 expressions from 10 distilleries that are at the forefront of making whisky greener.
The other, Exceptional Casks, are exactly what they claim to be. Found and purchased by the talented team at BBR, these are special whiskies from distilleries not commonly seen. They represent the pinnacle of mature whisky, very attractively priced given their quality and age statements. I somehow (embarrassingly) lost my tasting notes for these on my way home, so have given theirs.
1991 Benriach Cask Ref. 46507. Bottled 2023 at 48.3% - £800
After more than three decades, this Benriach has developed a nose of rosehip, pine forest and various waxes. The palate expands in multiple directions all at once, with bitter-orange thick-cut marmalade, firm plums and almond-topped Bakewell tart. A dram like this deserves a bit of time in the glass and a quiet evening of enjoyment. I’ll be giving this both to fully explore the finish of macerated strawberries and thoughtful oak.
1979 Blend 5, Blended Malt Scotch Whisky at 52.6% - £450
This sublime blend dances out of the glass: aromas of coconut and warm gorse flowers interweave with melting butter and honeyed toast - truly mouth-watering. The palate is at once vibrant and vast, with notes of mango, delicate hemp, wood polish, beeswax, and spiced fruit, all rolling around the mouth. The finish offers more fruit, orange, and lychee. An exceptionally complex and ever-evolving glass of whisky; if Tolstoy made whisky, it would taste like this.
1975 Dufftown, Cask Ref. 10430 at 40.1% - £1000
Bottled at natural strength, this suave, old dram makes an entrance with beguiling aromas of buttered toast, rosewater and wildflower meadows. The palate gently builds with 45 years of character displaying fruit salad chews, sandalwood, argan oil and smoked pineapple. Warm cherries pop on the back palate. A long and contemplative finish brings subtle spice and orange zest.
These are whiskies that deserve attention and thought. They are serious drams intended to not only be enjoyed but also discussed. It is highly unlikely you will find similar again so please do snap these up whilst they are still available.
It can be easy to dismiss the big whisky retailers as places where you are unlikely to find anything non-mainstream or interesting, much like supermarket shelves. The Whisky Exchange kicks that notion into touch with the head buyer, Dawn Davies, doing a sterling job of seeking out small batches of whisky from around the world and importing them to the UK.
Availability is varied due to the non-enviable task of navigating shipping and customs regulations, especially from the USA, which can be a total nightmare. Couple this with hardcore fans of American whisky, and it makes for some fun trying to bag bottles as and when they become available. But I like this process - having to work to get my whisky. It makes securing those bottles even more enjoyable.
I was recently invited to a dinner hosted by Dawn and the wizard that is the legendary Billy Abbott, to taste 7 examples that they have discovered and purchased. I was incredibly impressed by the whole range as they took me to flavour profiles I had not experienced before. They were simply delicious. I am not going to give tasting notes as there are enough of those in these musings already. What I will say, is that if you are a fan of American Whisky then just buy any of these and enjoy them.
I will be writing a few in-depth features on a selection of the distilleries soon.
Copper Works American Single Malt Whiskey
McKenzie Pure Pot Still Whiskey
McKenzie Bourbon Whisky
Stoll & Wolfe Single Barrel Rye Whiskey
Stoll & Wolfe Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
Frey Ranch Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Jeptha Creed Straight Four Grain Bourbon
The story of Torabhaig dates back to the early 19th century when Thomas Mackenzie, a local farmer and distiller, established the first legal distillery on the Isle of Skye in 1810. The distillery operated for nearly 100 years before closing its doors in 1928.
In 2017, the team behind Torabhaig resurrected the distillery, breathing new life into this historic site. It was not without serious challenges and proved hard to fit the distillery into the existing buildings footprint and make it look like it wasn’t there. It rained every day for 11 months during the build with snow and sleet appearing as late as May. When asking the iconic Still makers, Forsyths for their advice, they responded by saying they just make stills and couldn’t be of help.
Being creative is something the team behind Torabhaig excels at. They have a different approach and way of thinking, almost unheard of elsewhere. For example, they advertised in the West Highland Post for staff to attract people with no industry experience. Applicants were invited to attend an open week to discover what work life in a distillery was like. There was one concession, however, and that was Iona who had spent 2 months as a tour guide at Talisker. One requirement is that staff live nearby or they won’t make it to work, especially in tourist season.
For one month of the year, the distillers at Torabhaig have free rein, as long as it is within the confines of the Scotch Whisky Association regulations. This might mean using different yeasts, a higher or lower ppm of peat, or using heritage grains. Fermentation can take as long as they like with their choice of cut points. This can go in any direction and each distiller can make 100 barrels worth of whisky. Barrel changes as the whisky ages may be requested, but this has only happened twice. The distillers have to stay at the distillery to get a bottle, so a great incentive to stay.
I love this way of thinking - who knows what wonderful whiskies may transpire as a result of this freedom. It is different flavours that excite me, so I hope to be able to visit the distillery soon and taste cask samples of these and hope some may be good enough to bottle. In the meantime, the distillery has recently launched the Allt Gleann Batch Strength which is really rather tasty!
Allt Gleann Batch Strength 61.1% - £75
You are met with a smokey brine on the nose which gives way to ripe passion fruit and paw paw. I found more BBQ notes on the palate with great depth and spicy character. The length was impressive and dark chocolate and vanilla flavours started to emerge over time.
Swiss distillery Langatun has released three new whiskies, all aged in ex-wine casks. As regular readers will know, coming from the wine trade these are always something to look forward to. It is also a treat to try whisky from European distilleries and these did not disappoint. The Rioja stood out for me especially.
Rioja Cask 49.12% and 367 bottles released - £99.
The first thing that you notice on the nose is the meatiness, like reduced roast beef juices which is wonderful. I almost want to grab a piece of sourdough and dip it in. Then come the stewed damsons, smelling like a compote. The palate is sweeter than the nose would suggest and full of stone fruit, spice and frangipane notes. Really very delicious with a notable length that just lingers. It has 100% been aged in Rioja casks and is a single cask bottling.
Madeira Cask Finish 49.12% and 525 bottles released - £99.
The very deep colour hints at what is to come. You can definitely smell the Madeira with caramel, walnuts and spices showing well. On the palate, there is a wonderful dryness, vanilla and herbaceous notes. In a good way, it reminded me of Jaegermister or even a Sazerac cocktail - quite extraordinary. It was initially matured in Chardonnay casks for around 4 years before spending 18 months finishing in Madeira casks.
Monbazillac Cask 49.12% and 473 bottles released - £99.
A scented nose of lemon meringue pie with a Chantilly cream laced with cinnamon that is gorgeous. This gives way to a palate of orchard fruits, including stewed apple, vanilla and manuka honey that keeps drawing you back for more. This was originally aged in a Chardonnay cask before spending 14 months in a Monbazillac cask.
All three have been imported into the UK by https://www.highfern.com which has a few other interesting releases including Two Brewers Single Malt from Canada. When I first tasted this I was blown away by just how different it was. Founded by Alan Hansen and Bob Baxter who had started craft brewery Yukon Brewing in 1997, it was so different and immensely powerful in terms of flavour, that I had to have a bottle.
The two decided to purchase a still in 2009 to start making whisky, utilising their brewing expertise. This shows great foresight given the rise of the craft distillery movement and presumably stands them in good stead with older stocks.
Each bottle is small batch with a variety of malted and roasted grains, using different fermentation techniques and a mix of barrels, which keeps things interesting.
Alan and Bob were named Artisan Producer of the Year in the 2023 Canadian Whisky Awards, so I am going to try and seek out a few more of their release.
Two Brewers Single Malt Whisky Release 35 - 46% - £91.50
The nose is glorious with grain, orchard and tropical fruits. The palate follows through with the spices really opening up and complementing the fruit. Layers of flavour abound with caramelised figs and vanilla offering a wonderful back note. Truly delicious and only 132 bottles were released in this size.
I came across Independent bottler Brave New Spirits and their Cask Noir series a few months ago and subsequently purchased a bottle, mainly because I thought what they were doing was incredibly interesting. I shall be writing more in the future but in the interim would like to draw your attention to the following expressions:
Mysteries Of The Wee Toon 6-Year-Old 59.2% - £72
This is from Campbeltown and shows a restrained nose that takes a while to get going. When it does, you are given lovely pear-drop notes. The palate is light in flavour but with a good body. Vanilla and spice were present but this is a very delicate whisky. Ideal for those experiencing cask strength for the first time maybe.
Take It To The Brig 12-Year-Old - £76
My first impression was that this could be a Rye whisky and on further investigation it turns out that it was from the grain distillery Cameronbridge (my samples did not have the distillery name on them) so is almost certainly grain. It has been aged in a single 1st Fill Pedro Ximenez Sherry Hogshead, giving off all the flavours you would expect, with a beautiful spice and sweetness at the end.
Campfire Songs 59.6% - £76
The name of this tells you it is going to be smokey and it is but in a Maplewood way. It reminds me of specialist woods to add an extra dimension to your BBQ. It was distilled at Caol Ila on Islay and aged in a 1st Fill Château Lafite Wine Barrique which really appeals to me. I smelt damsons on the nose and got a beautiful depth on the palate of rich berry fruits. A bramble crumble came to mind. Delicious!
The Sentinals Legacy 52.6% - £180
Maybe an Olorosso cask? A rich colour with a berry compote on the nose complete with vanilla ice cream. Hints of grain coming through having been in the glass a while. Very dry in the mouth but punchy and full of flavour. Raisins, liquorice and tobacco. It turns out to be a 22-year-old Benrinnes from an Olorosso quarter cask. I am happy I got that tasting it blind.