Glenturret (G&M 1999/2018)

Whisky and stills and cats, oh my!

Do you like whisky? Do you like cats? If you’re anything like me then the answer is a resounding “Yes!” to both questions. The world would be immeasurably less enjoyable place if either delicious drams or furry feline friends were— *gulp*— absent from it. I have had held both whisky and cats close to my heart for some time but these loves occupy different parts of my life. Like parallel roads, whisky and cats run through the course of my life but never meet. Indeed, it never really occurred to me that they could intersect. How could this possibly even occur? Perhaps some kind of cat café, like the kind popularised in Japan, but which served whisky instead of tea alongside cat companionship? Perhaps a Maine Coon trained by search-and-rescue teams to carry miniature drams of whisky to lost travellers, akin to the barrel-carrying St Bernard dogs that historically worked in the Swiss Alps? It all seems a bit absurd. But then I found it: a point of intersection. The mediating middle of the Venn diagram where the circle “Love of Whisky” overlaps with the circle “Love of Cats”. Glenturret Distillery.

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Cold and crisp welcome to the distillery

Glenturret Distillery is located in the Southern Highlands and can be found amidst the rolling hillsides of Perthshire. Established in 1775, like many distilleries it has suffered from some stops-and-starts in production throughout the years. Glenturret might not be an immediately recognisable name to whisky drinkers as much of what it produces goes for blending and only recently have they begun to emphasise their single malt. In Australia we don’t get very much of this single malt either. The ownership of the distillery changed hands in late 2018, just a short time before our visit, so hopefully the new owners will make the Glenturret single malt more easily accessible down under.

The distillery itself is equipped with a stainless steel mash tun which, idiosyncratically, has an open top that exposes its contents to the elements and that requires stirring by hand (rather than by machine). This open mash tun is said to be the last remaining one of its kind in Scotland, which certainly explains why I have never seen its’ like in all my other distillery tours. The distillery also has eight Douglas fir washbacks and a pair of stills with vertical condensers. The stillroom is the heart of any distillery and the highlight of a tour. As you bask in the radiant heat from these copper giants you can’t help but wonder at the seemingly magical way they convert sugary wort into clear, concentrated spirit.

glenturret still
Magic of the still room

But I was broken free from their spell at Glenturret when I spied a very unusual addition to the stillroom: a small cat flap entry from the outside, complete with a tiny ramp for feline legs.

glen and turrets house
& what a glorious little house it is!

Whilst in Scotland you are spoilt for choice when it comes to planning your travel itinerary. There is simply so many great distilleries to visit but, as a tourist, only a limited amount of time. Careful planning is key and so is making some tough choices about where you have time to visit and where you do not. But how to choose between all the available distillery options? “We’re coming for your cats” I typed into the ‘comments’ section of the Glenturret tour booking webpage. “Sounds like a threat” my husband piped up. What I was trying to convey in my message was that the long, storied association between Glenturret distillery and their cats was the tipping point for choosing this particular distillery for inclusion on our latest Scottish roadtrip. I deleted the comment but I confirmed the booking.

The cats that I was “coming for”, the cats who benefit from the catflap into the warm and cozy stillroom, are Glen and Turret. They may be unusual brand ambassadors but they certainly appear to enjoy their visitor-meeting and marketing duties, indeed they each even have a special single-cask whisky named after them.

  To see a cat at a distillery is a welcome oddity in modern times but historically there would have been a more practical purpose for their presence. Given that whisky production requires huge amounts of barley, which distilleries in times past may have needed to stockpile at certain times, unwelcome visitors of the rodent variety would have plagued their premises. And who better to catch a rodent than a cat? Whilst Glen and Turret may no longer be needed to undertake these traditional mousing duties, the history of Glenturret includes a cat recognised in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful mouser of all time. Towser, a long-haired tortoiseshell cat, lived at the distillery from 1963 to 1987 and is estimated to have despatched a prodigious 28,899 mice during her tenure. Her impressive feat is immortalised in a statue erected near the stillroom as well as the merchandise bearing her proud (and somewhat scary) visage.

towser
A true legend of her time!

But let us put the cats of Glenturret aside for a minute in order to focus in on their whisky. The whisky I am reviewing today is an independent bottling from Gordon & Macphail of a Glenturret single malt, distilled in 1999 and bottled on 22 February 2018. It is a first fill sherry hogshead with an outturn of just 265 bottles at a cask strength of 51.6%.

confused merlot
Our own little resident cat

Nose: Fresh cherries, rose petals, cranberries, ripe red apple, walnut and a hint of milk chocolate

Palate: Immediate sweetness. Caramel slice, potpourri, pink grapefruit, lemon pith, a touch of oak and some quality nougat. A long finish with a viscous mouthfeel, ending in some slight aniseed notes.

An exceptional dram. One of the best I’ve tasted for a while. Restrained and complex but still approachable, at once elegant as well as a crowd-pleaser. Whilst the distillery’s cats may have lured me in their single malt is drawcard enough on its own.

17.5/20

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Oban 21 Year Old

Oban, but not as you know it

Located on the west coast of Scotland, Oban is a dainty port town built around a natural bay (indeed the word “Oban” translates to “little bay” in Scots Gaelic). Whilst Oban may be a small town it has a lot going on. The port is a hive of activity with grizzled fisherman plying their trade, local seafood restaurants serving up the days’ catch, and tourists and locals alike being ferried in and out of the far-flung Hebridean isles. The inner parts of the town are crammed with shops, pubs and hotels, whilst houses perch on the steep surrounding hills. At the top of everything is McCaig’s Tower: an unlikely and imposing granite monument, modelled after the Roman Colosseum, that overlooks the entire town below.

oban

At the heart of the town—just a street or so from the water, down a side-alley and opposite the neon lights of a Chinese restaurant— is Oban Distillery. It has been here since 1794, long before much of the rest of the town. Like the town itself this distillery is small, producing just 650,000 litres a year from its two stills. Nestled against the cliff-face and hemmed in by the growing town around it, the distillery’s owners once unsuccessfully tried to make more room by trying to carve directly into the rock itself. But despite Oban Distillery’s small size their ownership by the beverage giant Diageo gives them global reach- I can vouch for the fact that their whisky can be found half a world away in Australia.

oban exterior wide

The core Oban Distillery expression is the 14 Year Old. In this whisky the distillery’s use of minimally-peated malt and practice of maturing mainly in refill American oak barrels produces a crowd-pleasing salted caramel flavour profile (with the barest whisper of smoke) that’s bottled at an easy-drinking 43% ABV. Last year, however, saw the release of a whisky which showcased a very different side to Oban. The Oban 21 Year Old came out as part of the limited-edition 2018 Diageo Special Releases range. It is matured instead in refill European oak butts and is bottled at a much higher cask strength of 57.9% ABV.

oban still

Nose: Green apple and cut grass at first, giving way to raspberry jubes, peach and honey blossom. A surprising hit of freshly ground coffee.

Palate: Orange, cinnamon spice and black pepper heat. Oak and a follow-through of the bitter coffee notes from the nose.

A warming and long finish.

oban 21

Oban whisky but certainly not as you know it! A complex dram that has a very different flavour profile from the core expression, with no salted caramel in sight. And like the town of Oban itself this whisky has a lot going on. Oban may be a small distillery in a small town—but good things do come in small packages after all.

16/20

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Scapa Distillery Reserve Collection

A wild windswept part of the world, and a distillery exclusive

Welcome whisky drinkers, I am back after a short hiatus!

Today I’ll be reviewing a whisky from a distillery located on the rugged Orkney Islands. You may have read my previous review of whiskies from Highland Park, but this will instead be a review of their nearby Orcadian compatriots at Scapa distillery.

Scapa was established in 1885 and is located just outside Kirkwall, a quick 5-10 minutes drive from Highland Park. The distillery is perched high up on the cliffs that surround the picturesque Scapa Flow and the distillery itself is a great vantage point for viewing the tumultuous swirl of waves through the bay. Apparently, this area was a very important naval base in both World Wars due to its strategic location. Many sunken wrecks of various warships now litter the surrounding seabed, hidden from view to all but the intrepid diver.

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Like many Scottish distilleries, Scapa has had its high and low points. Production ceased during World War II and the distillery was even mothballed at one stage (1994-2004). Refurbishments have since been carried out and the distillery and visitors centre were warm and welcoming during my visit to the Orkney Islands in mid-2017.

Currently Scapa produces ~1 million litres per year. A particularly interesting aspect of this process is their idiosyncratic use of a Lomond still as one of their two stills. Lomond stills look very different to the usual kind of still – they consist of a pot topped with a neck fitted with several plates, each of which can be turned on or off in order to imitate the effects of a still with a very short neck, a long neck or anything in between. These changes to the still shape consequently change the flavour profile of the spirit that the still produces. Lomond stills have now largely vanished from whisky production and only a handful remain in use in Scotland. Bruichladdich, for example, now uses their Lomond still to produce their “Botanist” gin. However, Scapa continues to use theirs for whisky and this is a rare treat indeed.

Scapa does not have a particularly large core range nor does it have much market presence in my home country of Australia. In recent years Scapa’s flagship bottling was a 16 Year Old but this has been discontinued and replaced by the NAS bottlings Skiren and Glansa. However, from time to time you can find a Scapa limited edition, often thematically linked to the naval history of the Scapa Flow area, or an independent bottling from brands like Gordon & McPhail or Douglas Laing. The particular bottle I am reviewing today is a distillery exclusive, so unless you fancy making the trek to Orkney you might need to cross you fingers that your go-to local or internet distributor gets some stock in.

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The Distillery Reserve Collection is a 12 Year Old bottled at cask strength – 58.5%. It was distilled 10 June 2003 and bottled 29 July 2015.  The high ABV is a welcome feature of this whisky.

Nose: Tropical fruits – pineapples and peaches. Bubblegum; really saccharine sweet. Definite hints of banana and toffee.

Palate: Crisp fresh pears. Vanilla. Light caramel. Cereal kind of notes – Weetbix with a generous spoonful of sugar and a splash of milk. Under-ripe almonds.

Finish: Although its not a short finish it is a little one-dimensional. More sweet caramel notes and some pleasing warmth.

Scapa dram

Conclusion: This is a nice whisky, quite straightforward and easy-drinking. The nose is very sweet and so is the palate but the palate gains some additional depth from its freshe fruit notes.

14/20

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Macallan Classic Cut Limited Edition 2017

Tradition and change

Macallan is one of the big names in the whisky world. I would wager that many a non-whisky drinker will know something about them, probably from either seeing a Macallan bottle perched on the top shelf of a local bar or reading some of the endless cavalcade of newsmedia articles about how a new record has been set for the most expensive whisky sold at auction. (This whisky is always a Macallan and the amount of money involved is always eye-wateringly high.)

macallan

But despite their extensive brand recognition it can be difficult to pin down Macallan’s identity. At times Macallan plays up tradition: with cutesy pictures of the historic Easter Elchies house (built circa 1700) on some labels, prominently-displayed age statements and a distinctly gentlemen-at-the-golfing-clubhouse vibe. This is not to say that Macallan is stuck in the past though. At other times Macallan is seemingly all about innovation: with special bottlings released in collaborations with artists and perfumers, the occasional psychedelic label (the Ernie Button edition) and a jam-packed schedule of interesting limited releases.

macallan house
Easter Elchie’s house – now go and look at the Macallan label!

This dual-identity makes it difficult to get to grips with Macallan and results from something that many whisky brands struggle with: the need to have one foot planted firmly in the past and simultaneously one eye focused on the future. As the world keeps turning, distilleries and their whiskies need to preserve their past but embrace change too. Not all change is necessarily good. For example, Macallan was an early adopter in the broader trend of replacing age statement whiskies with NAS alternatives – a move that has been criticised for hiding important information from the consumer. But some change certainly is good. For example, Macallan’s just-opened £140 million distillery and visitor centre reflects environmentally-focused architectural design, new technology in the stillroom and a top-class visitor experience. It is now Scotland’s biggest distillery in terms of output with a capacity of 15 million litres.

What can be said about Macallan whisky itself? It remains the third most sold single malt in the world and the older and limited Macallan releases sell for ever-increasing amounts in both the primary and secondary markets. However, some of their newer releases have received a mixed critical response and for the price of a premium bottle of Macallan a discerning whisky-drinker could probably pick up a couple of bottles of comparable quality from other distilleries.

The whisky I am reviewing today is the Classic Cut Limited Edition 2017. This bottling was released in autumn 2017 for the American domestic market though it can also be found online in the secondary market in other places. It is a NAS whisky and is bottled at 58.4%. It is exclusively matured in oak casks seasoned with Spanish Oloroso sherry. The colour is a gorgeous burnished copper and is natural from the casks.

macallandram

Nose: Buttered toast, rich crème caramel, oranges, walnuts, vanilla and raisins.

Palate: A little restrained at first but then baked red apples and luscious apricot comes to the fore, with well-rounded oak notes and a beautiful, unctuous mouthfeel. Mainly sweet but also a little bit spicy.

Finish: Long, lingering and intense- due to the high proof. The sweetness of the palate segues into some light bitterness.

I enjoyed it neat but a drop or two of water might open up those sweet flavours even more.

While it might be hard to pin down the brand identity of Macallan, ultimately it is the quality of the whisky that really counts. The whisky in the bottle speaks louder than any marketing drive or fancy packaging/label. Regardless of the ongoing tension between tradition and innovation, the past and the future, “good” change and “bad” change, it is clear the Macallan has produced an excellent whisky here: a comforting and warming dram that is perfect on a cold night.

16/20

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Auchentoshan Blood Oak

Light but not boring

Auchentoshan distillery is located in the Lowlands region, more specifically it lies somewhere in the gritty outskirts of Glasgow. This is not the most beautiful location; it lacks the charm of undulating green hills and gently burbling streams that surround other distilleries.

auch outside

But despite its industrial locale Auchentoshan nevertheless produces a light and very pure whisky. This is due to the triple distillation method that they employ to strip away some of the “heavier” notes from their whisky. The vast majority of Scottish distilleries just distil twice but Auchentoshan has gone down the path of triple distillation in order to create a more floral distillate that can be easily influenced by the oak during maturation.

auch stills

Ordinarily, lighter styles of whisky like this are not really my thing. I have tried a number of Auchentoshan whiskies in the past (Three Wood, American Oak, etc) and have been somewhat underwhelmed. But the Auchentoshan whisky I am reviewing today, the Blood Oak, is different. Despite Auchentoshan’s generally light character this particular whisky is intense: just bursting with juicy fruit and spice notes.

The Blood Oak is part of Auchentoshan’s Travel Retail Exclusive Range. I picked up a bottle during a stop-over in Changi Airport, Singapore, and I am glad that I did. In terms of technical information, the Blood Oak is a NAS whisky, bottled at 46% and has been matured in a combination of bourbon casks and red wine casks (hence the dramatic name). This maturation gives the whisky a very rich flavour. This is reflected in the deep red packaging of the bottle and the crimson gold colour of the whisky itself.

auch dram

Nose: Vanilla, creamed honey, citrus (blood orange and grapefruit), cloves and almond.

Palate: Juicy red fruits immediately come to the fore (plums, strawberries and summer raspberries), spicy notes of cloves and ginger, marzipan.

Palate: Peppery, long and lingering, with a little dryness at the end.

Blood Oak is the most rich, vibrant and complex of the Auchentoshan range that I have tried to date. I am enjoying the general whisky industry’s ongoing experimentation with different cask maturations/finishes and Auchentoshan’s combination of red wine and bourbon casks here is particularly well-matched. The sweet and vanilla flavours characteristic of bourbon cask maturation is complemented well by the red fruit and spicy notes of red wine casks.

With the Blood Oak Auchentoshan proves that a light whisky doesn’t have to be boring. It also proves that a distillery doesn’t need an idyllic pastoral location in order to create a beautiful dram.

15.5/20

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Mortlach Rare Old & Special Strength

A side by side comparison looking at the different effects of distillation and maturation.

Here we return to Mortlach, a Speyside distillery that I am fascinated with because it produces such an intriguing array of flavours in its whiskies. A few months ago I reviewed the independently-bottled Wemyss Malts ‘Ginger Glazed Gammon’ and if you want to brush up on the general information about the Mortlach distillery and its idiosyncratic distilling process you can find that here. Since that earlier post I have been lucky enough to try some additional drams from Mortlach. Moving from the independent bottlings to the official distillery bottlings, my palate has now run the gamut of the Mortlach core range all the way from the (presumably) younger NAS bottlings through to the venerable 25 year old.

mortlach lineup

In this particular review we’ll cover the two NAS offerings: the Rare Old and the Special Strength. The Rare Old is the opening gambit in the newish Mortlach range that Diageo launched in late 2014. It is bottled at 43.4% ABV, and was matured in a mix of four different types of casks: bourbon, sherry, refill bourbon and recharred barrels. The Special Strength is apparently pretty much the exact same liquid, but bottled at a higher 49% ABV and released as a Travel Retail Exclusive. Hunting down this particular bottle helped me while away some of the time during my long layover at Changi airport earlier this year! Because of the close similarities between the Rare Old and Special Strength they provide an interesting side-by-side tasting comparison. So, how exactly does this slight increase in proof impact on the profile of these whiskies?

 

Rare Old

rare old

Nose: Butterscotch at first sniff and then a refreshing hit of menthol, opens up into honeycomb, roasted pineapples and glazed ham with burnt bits, a big hit of red apple.

Palate: Initially spicy then mellows into quite a light dram; prunes, ham steaks, wood (that hot dry wood from a sauna), tobacco and drinking cocoa.

Finish: Definitely dries out your mouth a little, still spicy (cloves, white pepper), very long, no alcohol burn, a light pleasant finish.

16/20

The Special Strength

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Nose: Vanilla custard from packet mix, dark unsweetened cocoa, then the sweetness comes through with hints of honey, orange peel, raisins, hazelnuts.

Palate: Dark cherries in syrup, cacao, pineapple, ginger spice. Surprising rounded flavours of caramelised banana and arrowroot biscuit then the typical Mortlach charred-meat characters shine through.

Finish: Honeycomb (Violet Crumble – a classic Aussie chocolate bar for those who may be overseas!) and treacle tart

15.5/20

Whilst these two bottlings are undeniably similar and both carry the signature Mortlach notes of sweetness and meatiness, the difference in proof makes them distinctly different. Whilst the Special Strength’s higher proof translates to an initially harsher mouthfeel, this difference is reflected more deeply in two whisky’s flavour profiles as well. In particular, the sweetness in the Rare Old come through more fully, whilst the spicy notes are more to the fore in the Special Strength. Taken together, they provide an interesting study in the impact the distillation has on the whisky as opposed to the cask maturation. Both are lighter and less challenging than some of the other ballsy Mortlachs out there; they definitely go down easily and make a good summer dram.

In the coming week I’ll finish off my look at the Mortlach core range with reviews of the 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old. As we approach the festive season stay tuned for more interesting drams!

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Ardbeg An Oa

The highly anticipated new edition to the Ardbeg core range!

In this review we return to Ardbeg distillery which is located on Islay’s Kildalton coast. Today’s whisky is the brand new An Oa, the first addition to the core Ardbeg range of expressions since the introduction of Corryvrecken in 2009.

The name ‘An Oa’ is a reference to the Mull of Oa which is a peninsula located nearby to the distillery. Just like this rocky and windswept part of the coast, the An Oa has the rugged oomph that one expects from a heavily peated Ardbeg dram. And yet the An Oa also displays the more approachable side of this distillery as these wild notes are tamer than in other Ardbeg core expressions.

This whisky was matured in a combination of casks including Pedro Ximénez, charred virgin oak and ex-bourbon, which were all then married together in Ardbeg’s new bespoke oak Gathering Vat by Master Distiller Bill Lumsden. In keeping with the most of the core Ardbeg range (apart from the 10 Year Old), it does not have an age statement. It is bottled at 46.6% which is lower than both the Corryvrecken and the Uigeadail.

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Nose: Typical Islay peat, Terry’s chocolate orange, smoky streaky bacon grease, a touch of lemon. Then there is an oak note and a hint of vanilla.

Palate: A sweet and creamy dram. Peat at the fore, dark chocolate and liquorice.  It mellows into buttery banana bread, honey, vanilla and stewed peaches. There is a little Christmas spice, flavours of nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves. The palate becomes a little dry towards the finish.

Finish: Seductively long. Still quite sweet but with a slight tang of resinous pine and an excellent, warming mouthfeel.

an oaOverall, a very drinkable dram and a good addition to an already strong core range. You will start by intending to have just a single splash in the evening and will soon find that a good part of you bottle has gone. Initially I did think that the An Oa was a little one-dimensional but this notion was dispelled as I discovered more to it over time. Whilst it is not as intense in peat or proof as the Uigeadail or Corryvrecken, the An Oa’s more relaxed profile makes for easier drinking for Islay whisky lovers here in Australia as we have now begun to enter the (very warm) Australian summer season.

16/20

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Have a look at my review of the Ardbeg Kelpie.