It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Yes, it’s that time of year where we chop down trees and display them in our houses and take delight in wearing garish jumpers! Not only that, it’s also that time when those clever chaps at Drinks by the Dram afford us the opportunity to sample a different dram every day for over three weeks in the form of an Advent calendar!
The first whisky Advent calendar was released a few years back, and since then the concept has really taken off, with a whole range of spirits and themes available.
This year I have been lucky enough to have received The Whisky Advent Calendar (courtesy of Mrs Share!), showcasing a range of whiskies including single malt Scotch, blends, single grains and drams from various distilleries throughout the world.
The following is a few notes on the whiskies lurking behind the doors.
1st: The Lost Distilleries Blend Batch 8
The Lost Distilleries series from The Blended Whisky Company are blends made up entirely of spirit from distilleries that have closed over the years. Not only does this make them sought after, it also provides the closed-distillery-geek an interesting challenge to try and tease out any characteristics present that were typical of the distilleries within. Today’s dram is batch 8, a fairly new release containing malt from Caperdonich, Rosebank, Imperial, Mosstowie, Glen Mhor, Glenisla, Glenlochy, Port Ellen and Brora, along with Port Dundas grain.
Nose: Initially fresh crisp fruit – crunchy pears – and a sweet marzipan nuttiness, with a touch of vanilla wood spice.
Taste: A well-rounded mouthfeel, spicier than the nose suggested with ginger and other baking spice, some “damp” earthy notes – tobacco leaf.
Finish: The marzipan from the nose lingers, alongside a faint wisp of smoke.
2nd: Glenfiddich 15 Year-Old Solera
Today’s dram is from a giant of Speyside – Glenfiddich. One of the first distilleries to seriously market a single malt, it is often overlooked by enthusiasts (perhaps due to its ubiquity) but their range offers some great whisky at very good prices – the 15 year old Distillery Edition is a favourite of mine at its price point! This dram is another 15 year old, but after a regular maturation in a mix of ex-bourbon, ex-sherry and virgin oak casks, this spirit is married in a solera vat which has been kept half-full since 1998 (a process more commonly seen in the sherry world).
Nose: Simultaneously malty and fruity – porridge with baked apple and raisins. There is some tropical fruit too (pineapple), and the sweetness of vanilla sugar.
Taste: A fairly light mouthfeel. A pleasant balance of malt sweetness, some dried fruit and wood spice. Very much a drinker!
Finish: Gentle vanilla fudge lingers.
We’re off to Islay today, to the newest distillery on the island (for now!). Founded in 2005, Kilchoman is known as Islay’s farm distillery for its ethos of using local produce and keeping the entire process self-contained; from growing, harvesting and malting the barley to maturation and bottling – all done on-site. Despite its relatively young age, the distillery has quickly gained a solid reputation for producing quality spirit. Today’s dram is Machir Bay, Kilchoman’s flagship single malt. No age statement is indicated, but at a guess I’d say it contains 4-5 year old malt. The spirit has been matured in a combination of ex-bourbon barrels and ex-oloroso sherry butts.
Nose: Classic Kilchoman character is present here: soft pears and potent smoke. Something almost floral too – elderflower. Given some time a biscuity sweetness appears, reminiscent of millionaire’s shortbread.
Taste: Initially quite bright and fruity – lemons and pears, then more sweetness with tablet. A pervasive “clean” smoke is present throughout.
Finish: A waft of smoke with citrus peel and cracked black pepper contribute to a rather more-ish finish.
Continuing a theme, today we have another new distillery – Wolfburn. Some may argue that it is re-established rather than entirely new, but given that the Wolfburn of old ceased production in the 1850s and very little evidence of the previous site exists, in my opinion it’s safe to label this a new operation! Based in Thurso, Wolfburn can lay claim to being the most northerly distillery on the Scottish mainland – a title long held by Old Pulteney, illustrating the folly of relying on geographic coincidence for marketing. The distillery produces a spirit using a long fermentation (75 hours) and slow distillation, which tells us to expect a clean, light and fruity spirit. Today we have their Single Malt, the first whisky made widely-available from the distillery – released earlier this year.
Nose: Juicy stone fruit with a slight salty tang, a touch of lemon zest and the faintest whiff of smoke. Given some time in the glass, a cereal-y oatmeal note makes an appearance.
Taste: A Lovely creamy-yet-clean mouthfeel (unexpectedly clean for a young whisky). Consistent with the nose we find lots of stone fruit alongside a note almost reminiscent of an oaked Chardonnay. The salty smoke makes its presence felt on the mid-palate but never overwhelms. A fruity sweetness – peach cobbler – then builds towards the finish.
Finish: A crescendo of gummy sweets balanced with a drying cereal note.
After the last two whiskies, today’s is from a comparatively grey-haired distillery. We’re off to Sweden for this dram, and to Mackmyra. Established in 1999 it was the first distillery in what has since become a thriving whisky industry in Sweden. Mackmyra has been on my radar since I came across their stand at Whisky Live London 2009, but as is often the case with upcoming distilleries their products are not sufficiently available for one to become familiar. Thankfully this is no longer the case and a wide range of bottlings is available in the usual places. As you will see from their range Mackmyra experiment and innovate with cask usage, and if your Swedish is better than mine you may have guessed that today’s dram is a good example of this. Translating as “Swedish Oak”, Svensk Ek is fully-matured in casks made from oak grown on Visingsö, a lake island in southern Sweden.
Nose: Rather light with initial notes of citrus peel before waves of ginger root take over. A sweet fruitiness emerges with banana and red apples alongside vanilla toffee.
Taste: Quite perfumey initially with lots of pine needle woody astringency. There is some mint in the background, but this is lost as sweet notes take over with crystallised ginger chocolate.
Finish: Fairly short, the herbal and woody notes dry things out quickly, leaving behind a hint of sweet apples. It sounds like an obvious comparison, but this is slightly reminiscent of an aquavit – very much a Swedish style of whisky. Skål!
6th: Douglas Laing’s Rock Oyster
Esteemed independent bottler Douglas Laing has an interesting range of regional malts; blended malt whisky containing spirit from particular areas of Scotland. For example Scallywag consists of malts from Speyside, Timorous Beastie from the Highlands, Big Peat from Islay and today’s dram Rock Oyster from the Islands. Using the term blended malt (newly established in SWA regulations back in 2009) signals that no grain is present in these bottlings. In a nice touch, Rock Oyster proudly displays its constituents on its maritime-influenced label – malts from Orkney, Arran, Jura and Islay. The intention of this series of bottlings – and Rock Oyster in particular – is clear. To quote Fred Laing, Master Blender:
If I could select just one dram to transport the Whisky enthusiast to the Islands of Scotland, it would be this Rock Oyster.
Nose: Very fresh and invigorating – lots of meaty, savoury smoke – Arbroath smokies alongside a seaside salty tang. There’s also some fruit in there, spiced apples and zesty oranges. This balance is almost like a BBQ sauce. Given some time in the glass a menthol note begins to appear.
Taste: An initial ashy smoke is joined by waves of sea salt, before a richness of dried fruit and nuts take charge on the mid-palate, joined by burnt orange peel.
Finish: Another waft of smoke dries out the richness of the palate and leaves notes of black pepper savoury spice.
A legendary Highland single malt, The Dalmore markets itself as “the most revered” and regardless of your agreement with that sentiment it is undoubtedly among the most renowned. Forget marketing claims of “alchemist artistry”, there is some geekery to be had in the process of producing Dalmore’s silkily-bodied spirit: the distillery makes use of a rare Lomond still – a pot still with an independently-cooled perforated plate in the neck, allowing for controlled and variable reflux during distillation and hence offering control over the character of spirit produced. Todays’ dram is the entry-level 12 year old from Dalmore’s core range. Aged for nine years in ex-bourbon casks initially, half is then transferred to ex-oloroso sherry casks for the final three years before the entirety is bottled.
Nose: Toffee, raisins & cherries – did someone say Christmas cake? Rich marmalade and a balancing slightly bitter note of roasted coffee. There is also some light baking spice in the background with some puff pastry.
Taste: Classic Dalmore in its delivery; rich and silky mouthfeel. Lots of dried fruit, marzipan, iced fondant, tangy oranges.
Finish: Plenty of orange zest, winter spice and other Christmasy things alongside a rich coffee bitterness.
Today follows on nicely from yesterday and brings us another whisky from a distillery with a mythological reputation. We’re back on Islay, down to Kildalton to be precise and to the white-washed, sea-battered Lagavulin. This distillery is steeped in history, much of which has been wonderfully recounted by some very talented writers so I won’t attempt to repeat their work here, other than to quote Dr Nick Morgan who tells a story which very nicely sums up the historical importance of Lagavulin to its local community. After a minister arrived at his new Islay parish in 1884, he became rather worse for wear after a night drinking with his new congregation. The reaction among the community was to ask for the minister to be replaced:
…as a warning that Islay ministers must be of equal drinking capacity as their parishioners
Today’s dram is the classic 16 year old. Although technically Lagavulin’s entry level malt, this whisky has become something of a benchmark for Islay whiskies and Lagavulin bottlings in particular. It can (and does!) hold its own in tastings including far more “prestigious” bottlings.
Nose: Initial hits of maritime peat, lapsang souchong tea, smoked kippers, then rich fruit cake and an oily smoke (reminiscent of a metalwork shop). Behind this there are waves of salt and seaweed, with a freshness of lemons. Given some time in the glass, some raw cacao starts to appear among the peat.
Taste: Very consistent onto the palate, balancing Dundee cake sherry notes and maritime smoke. The mid-palate has the sweetness of cocoa powder. A very pleasing richness throughout.
Finish: A pleasing richness and fresh creosote which dries nicely and lasts the rest of the evening.
The whisky hiding behind the 9th door was a genuine pleasant surprise to me – I must admit I have never come across Morrison and MacKay‘s Old Perth range of blended malts. Old Perth Scotch Whisky started in the same manner as many 19th / early 20th century blended whiskies – as the product of a grocers. In this case the blender was a Perth grocer run by the Thomson family. Unfortunately – unlike household brands such as Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal and Teachers which have thrived in the modern era – the blend disappeared in 1970’s. The name has recently been resurrected by Morrison and MacKay, a Perth-based family-owned independent bottler. There are three expressions in this range of blended malts: the original, a peated offering, and today’s dram – a Sherry Cask expression blended exclusively from malts matured in ex-sherry casks.
Nose: An immediate hit of sweet sherry influence: dates in syrup balanced by a distinct nuttiness. There’s a sweet yet earthy spice in there, reminiscent of milk chocolate which builds given some time in the glass. Notes of toffee and caramel round things off.
Taste: There’s a lovely silky texture to this whisky. Rum and raisin toffee is followed by muscovado sugar and a generous helping of gingerbread.
Finish: A satisfying potent kick of winter spice leaves a pleasant warming sensation for those long winter nights.
A quick hop over the Irish sea to Dublin for today’s dram from the Teeling Whiskey Co. Teeling is at the forefront of the Irish whiskey renaissance; their distillery was the first in Dublin for over 125 years when it opened 18 months or so ago. Of course none of the spirit that has flowed from these stills is old enough to be known as whiskey at this point, but luckily Jack and Stephen Teeling have plenty of stock to call upon – mostly from the previously-family-owned Cooley distillery – to which they have been applying some innovative cask finishing. Today’s whiskey is their Single Malt which marries 5 cask-finished whiskies: sherry, port, madeira, cabernet sauvignon and white burgundy.
Nose: Initially light with some stone fruit, a slight earthy note of cocoa powder appears. Ginger root and red forest fruit intermingle.
Taste: Lots of red fruit jam and earthy baking spice: ginger, nutmeg and cloves. There’s a slight heat of white pepper present throughout.
Finish: Lots of fresh berries and plum with a lingering white pepper.
11th: Evan Williams Extra Aged
We continue our journey west today, all the way out to Kentucky to sample our first bourbon of Advent. The name Evan Williams is associated with what is believed to be Kentucky’s first commercial distillery, opened in 1783 along the banks of the Ohio River. This has not been a continuous operation however: today the name is a brand of the Heaven Hill distillery in Louisville. Appearing on the Drinks by the Dram label as Extra Aged, this whiskey is more commonly known as Black Label and is Heaven Hill’s entry-level bourbon. Labelled as a Straight Bourbon (without an indicated age), this tells us that that the whiskey must be over 4 years old. From what I can gather it tends to contain whiskey between 4-7 years old and uses a fairly traditional bourbon mash bill.
Nose: Lots of sugar maple, vanilla and char. Some cola with sweet melon and strawberry laces.
Taste: Vanilla custard, muscovado sugar and lots of oak char. A dry spice (cinnamon and ginger) builds towards the end.
Finish: Burnt caramel dries to leave charcoal and spice.
12th: Tomatin 14 Year Old Port Wood Finish
Today’s dram brings us back to the Scottish Highlands, right on the border with what would be generally classified as Speyside. You could be forgiven for not knowing too much about Tomatin – it has until recently kept a fairly low profile in terms of official single malt bottlings. Thus, it may surprise you to learn that Tomatin has been quite the behemoth during its history, at one point boasting 23 stills producing 12 million litres of alcohol per year! Today it runs a “modest” 12 stills – producing a constant flow of malt that is largely sold into blends – still placing it among the largest Highland distilleries. To see the distillery in person is to understand its industrial scale – it is certainly no picturesque pagoda-topped postcard distillery! This is an operation built for function – as evidenced by the 30 homes built around the distillery specifically to ensure the workforce have an easy commute. As part of a recent expansion of their single malt range, the 14 Year Old Port Wood Finish was introduced in 2014. Initially matured in ex-bourbon, the spirit is finished in ex-Tawny port casks to add a layer of fruity sweetness to the whisky.
Nose:Lots of sweet, sugary red fruit (foam strawberries), malty biscuity notes reminiscent of horlics, and a sweet, fruity/nutty slice of bakewell tart.
Taste: Unexpectedly spicy initially with ginger and vanilla, before becoming softer with strawberries and cream. Some light sweet notes of icing sugar give way to a more robust honey sweetness.
Finish: Sweet honey gives way to nutty hints of marzipan and toasted almond.
13th: The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year Old
A short hop into Dufftown, the heart of Speyside for today’s whisky. The Balvenie distillery sits just below Glenfiddich and indeed shares the same water source as its neighbour. Featuring a rather impressive core range that includes some interesting cask maturation/finishing and always displaying age statements, Balvenie offers a lot to keep the single malt enthusiast interested (which is fortunate, as independently bottled Balvenie is like hen’s teeth!). For an operation that places a certain emphasis on the effect of wood selection on maturation, it is unsurprising to learn that the distillery boasts an on-site cooperage. It is also among only a few distilleries to have its own floor malting, although with capacity to produce malt for only around 15% of the distillery’s output its significance in the final product is debatable. Today I have the pleasure of sampling the 12 Year Old DoubleWood: a whisky which after an initial maturation in ex-bourbon casks is transferred to first-fill ex-sherry European oak casks. This malt is considered by many a benchmark in what a secondary maturation can offer.
Nose: Initial honey-sweetness with a touch of wood spice, then the richness of dried fruit with a french vanilla custard. A slight hint of golden syrup steamed sponge pudding.
Taste: A silky honeyed texture, bringing more of the sponge pudding from the nose alongside vanilla and cinnamon, balanced nicely with the sherry influence of booze-soaked dried fruit.
Finish: A pleasant crescendo of spice dries over time to reveal dark chocolate digestive biscuits.
14th: That Boutique-y Whisky Company Invergordon 25 Year Old – Batch 9
Today brings us our first single grain whisky of Advent, from independent bottler That Boutique-y Whisky Company. Releasing whisky from malt and grain distilleries as well as having a line of blended whiskies, That Boutique-y Whisky Company are known for the graphic-novel-like labels which often contain distillery references, geeky jokes, etc. This year I have got to know the range fairly well and there are some rather impressive whiskies to be had! Today’s whisky is from grain distillery Invergordon. Known for their Coffey stills Invergordon has a solid reputation for quality grain whisky. For the uninitiated, a single grain whisky is similar to a single malt in that it is the product of a single distillery, but unlike a malt the spirit is produced from a mash of any (unmalted) grains – typically wheat these days – usually with some malt barley thrown in to aid fermentation. Grain whiskies are typically distilled in continuous stills unlike the pot stills of the malt world, producing a high-alcohol light-in-character spirit. With careful cask selection and a long maturation this spirit can pick up a lot of character and complexity.
Nose: An assortment of desserts: tiramisu, French vanilla crème anglaise, white chocolate truffles and caramac bars. There is also a rich note of wood polish.
Taste: Vanilla wood-spice followed by chocolate orange and oat butter biscuits with golden syrup. There is also a drying oaky astringency present. Tasted neat there is quite an intense alcohol, but a few drops of water opens the palate nicely and reveals a nicely creamy mouthfeel.
Finish: Lots of toffee, cinnamon and a hint of orchard fruit.
Given its location a mere hour north of Glasgow, Glengoyne is happily amongst the more accessible distilleries for a visitor – pop in for a tour if you’re in the area! Curiously, its location is directly on the Highland line, meaning that due to the layout of the distillery the spirit is technically distilled in the highlands and matured in the lowlands. Glengoyne keenly emphasise their slow distillation (said to be around 4-5 litres per minute), which should in theory encourage plenty of reflux leading to a fruity, estery spirit. Today’s whisky is the 12 Year Old from the core range: matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks as well as classic Glengoyne ex-sherry oak, this should strike a balance between sweet spice and fruit.
Nose: Orange zest and custard with nutmeg and other baking spice. An aperitif wine with sweet nectarines, then some malt character appears with a touch of milk chocolate and hobnob biscuits.
Taste: A very pleasant gentle, creamy mouthfeel. Light fruit notes (melon and stone fruit) along with spiced honey. A floral dimension is introduced with turkish delight.
Finish: The fruit and honey from the palate quickly dissipate leaving a pleasant drying sensation of cacao nibs.
Situated at the foot of Ben Rinnes in Speyside, Glenfarclas is a well-regarded distillery which has that rare trait in Scotch whisky of having remained family-owned; a collection of six generations-worth of Grants have owned the distillery since 1865. Funnily enough they have all been named either John or George! At a recent tasting, the youngest George (currently Sales Director) jokingly asked the audience for suggestions on names for his own sons. Regardless of naming, hopefully the family business is kept in the same good shape it is in today. This family ownership has seen a balance of innovation – adding one of the first distillery visitor centres in 1973 – and tradition: it is one of a very small number of distilleries to continue to use direct-fired stills. They have a solid core range of expressions, all carrying age statements and all in the well-sherried and full-bodied style that Glenfarclas is synonymous with. Today’s dram is the 21 Year Old from the top half of the lineup, and unsurprisingly is matured exclusively in ex-sherry casks.
Nose: Toffee and rich fruit cake with brandy custard. Toasted almonds, a zesty orange marmalade with some tinned pineapple tropical fruit notes which balance the nose beautifully.
Taste: Initially lots of sherry influence and tannic wood spice delivered on a silky mouthfeel. Sherry trifle with nutmeg, more fruit cake with cherry and almond, and a satisfying malt sweetness towards the back of the palate.
Finish: Fading dried fruit leaves cereal, earthy spice and dark chocolate.
17th: Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask Finish
Today sees our first visit out to the Far East. Not to Japan – the long-established whisky producer in the region – but to Taiwan, a country which has created quite a stir in the industry in the past 5 or so years through Kavalan, its first whisky distillery. A string of awards and blind tasting wins culminated in its Soloist Vinho Barrique being named World’s Best Single Malt Whisky in the 2015 World Whisky Awards. Situated in the north east of the island, Kavalan distillery sits in a sub-tropical region which sees temperatures ranging from 15°c – 30°c (up to 42°c on the top floor of the warehouse!) and a constant humidity of around 90-95%. This has a significant effect on maturation – accelerating the process but with the side-effect of a much larger angel’s share than you would see in Scotland (10-15% per year as opposed to around 2%). This leaves not much time to get things right! Concertmaster Port Cask Finish is a single malt whisky matured for 3 years in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks (all American oak) before being finished for a further year in ruby and tawny port casks.
Nose: Bright initially with lots of red fruit – strawberry milkshakes with vanilla ice cream, before becoming drier with cinnamon and other wood spice. There is a hint of floral perfume with rosewater. Over time an earthy note develops: damp forest floor and dunnage warehouses.
Taste: Initially strawberry laces, then the sweetness of brown sugar and baking spice – cloves in particular. A warming sensation of white pepper is noticeable throughout.
Finish: A medium-length sweet finish with strawberry jam and icing sugar.
Today brings us back to Scotland, and to Oban distillery in the eponymous town on the west Highland coast. Unlike most distilleries in Scotland, the site is not nestled behind a hill as a by-product of an illicit distilling past. Instead, Oban distillery is right in the heart of the town. In fact, the distillery pre-dates the formation of the town which was built around the site. Oban has thus found expansion options rather limited in years gone by, which leaves the distillery among Diageo’s smallest. This has the pleasant side-effect that all output from the stills ends up bottled as single malt. The distillery is one of a minority employing worm tub condensers, curiously located under the roof of the building. It is also particularly known for a slow fermentation which leads to fruity notes in the resulting spirit. All spirit produced is matured in the on-site warehouses a stone’s throw from the bay, which leads some to claim that this produces a touch of salt detectable on the nose. Whether or not this is autosuggestion is debatable! Today’s dram is Little Bay, a no-age-statement expression which after a fairly standard maturation in a combination of refill ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks sees a marrying maturation in quarter casks.
Nose: A sweet, floral honey is joined with the freshness of crisp apple, alongside orange peel. This is supported by cereal notes of buttered oatcakes.
Taste: Orange peel, vanilla spice and cloves form a delightful chai masala. A honey sweetness lifts the spiced notes, and gives way to buttery croissants.
Finish: The spice notes dominate a nicely drying finish, with cardamom and ginger, followed by a dusting of cacao.
19th: That Boutique-y Whisky Company English Whisky Co. 5 Year Old – Batch 1
Today’s dram is the second of Advent from independent bottler That Boutique-y Whisky Company. The label depicts a first-person view from inside a medieval helmet facing down a fire-breathing dragon, which offers a not-so-subtle hint that this whisky is from The English Whisky Company‘s St George’s Distillery in Norfolk. The first whisky distillery in England for over a hundred years when it commenced production in 2006, St George’s is managed by David Fitt – who after working under the wing of renowned Laphroaig distiller Iain Henderson has excelled and was recently named Distillery Manager of the year in Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky awards. The English Whisky Company officially release bottles under their own name in “Chapters” as the spirit matures, however this bottle from That Boutique-y Whisky Company is rather unusual in that it carries an age statement of 5 years. Not among the oldest available spirit from St George’s, but certainly no youngster around the distillery releases.
Nose: Toffee and oak char, a smoky element and plenty of vanilla. A slight floral note lingers in the background alongside gooseberries and kiwi fruit. These softer notes begin to dominate given some time in the glass.
Taste: Pleasant vanilla sweetness balanced with drying charcoal. Crème brûlée with the heat of freshly ground black pepper.
Finish: A drying finish of sweet cereal, lingering charcoal soot and peppery spice.
We are in the Eastern Highlands today, at the foot of the Cairngorm mountains in Fettercairn. Fettercairn is one of the lesser-known distilleries in the Whyte & MacKay malt portfolio (which also includes Dalmore, Jura and Tamnavulin); the vast majority of its 2.2 million litres-per-year output is destined for blends (in all likelihood mostly Whyte & MacKay’s eponymous flagship brand). It does however have a small range of single malt offerings including Fior and Fasque, as well as 24 year old, 30 year old and 40 year old bottlings released in 2009 as part of a drive towards a more luxurious image for the brand. These releases are quite hard to find these days, but I was lucky enough to encounter the 40 year old as part of a masterclass tasting with Richard Paterson at this year’s TWE Whisky Show. Until today this was my only experience of Fettercairn single malt. Today’s dram is Fasque (named for the nearby country estate), a no-age-statement unpeated expression which at one point was an exclusive for Tesco supermarket.
Nose: Malt cereal initially with a faint note of smoked bacon. A gentle orchard fruit takes over with over-ripe pears dominating. This is joined by a touch of baking spice. A very gentle, subtle dram.
Taste: Digestive biscuits and toffee penny sweets. Some vanilla spice is backed with a little oak char.
Finish: A fairly short drying finish with some dried fruit giving way to oak and some white pepper.
21st: The Macallan Double Cask 12 Year Old
Today brings us back to Speyside and to another giant of the industry in The Macallan. Macallan will likely need little introduction – founded in 1824 across the River Spey from nearby Craigellachie (both the village and the eponymous distillery), it is among the largest producers of malt whisky in Scotland. Measured in either capacity or value, Macallan is right up there with its neighbours Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. The entire distillery is currently being rebuilt on site which should expand capacity further, although at this point it is not clear by how much exactly (and I am not certain if the current facility will continue production or will be mothballed). Given all of this one could say that marketing claims of exclusivity are rather hollow, but then I suppose you’d have to ignore the eye-watering prices rare/exclusive bottlings can fetch at auction. Today’s dram is rather more grounded and is a (somewhat) new concept from the distillery. Double Cask 12 Year Old is a whisky that has matured in a combination of American and European oak (both ex-sherry). You could say that this places it somewhere between the traditional Sherry Oak range (mostly ex-sherry European oak) and the Fine Oak series (ex-sherry American and European oak and ex-bourbon American oak). It also heralds a return (in some markets) of the age statement to the Macallan range.
Nose: There is dried fruit of course, but it is not as dominant as the Sherry Oak Macallans. Here we find it mingled with lighter notes of marzipan, tangerine zest, golden syrup sponge pudding doused in vanilla custard, followed by Werther’s Original toffee.
Taste: Plenty of heather honey to lead, there is also expressed orange peel, vanilla spice and candied chestnuts on a nicely creamy mouthfeel.
Finish: A satisfying finish brings poached apples alongside an additional layer of baking spice and warm vanilla.
Today brings us back to the US and to a distillery of firsts. Buffalo Trace takes its name from the path beaten out by herds of the beasts making their way to the Kentucky river, an area saturated with the spirit of many distilleries of the 18th century. Much like the buffalo beat out a path across untamed plains, the distillery has forged a path in the modern whiskey industry: the first to use steam powered stills, the first to send its whiskey down the Mississippi River and one of less than a handful to have a legal license to distill during prohibition (for “medicinal” purposes of course!). The distillery has many offerings named for the various legends who have run the facilities over the generations, and is these days known for the high-end Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bottlings which are hen’s teeth at retail and fetch astronomical prices on the secondary market. That aside, there are a number of approachable good quality whiskies available from Buffalo Trace too, including the original single barrel bourbon Blantons, Eagle Rare and today’s dram the eponymous Buffalo Trace bourbon.
Nose: Toffee, crème caramel and lots of sweet notes. There is also an abundance of baking spice: cloves, star anise and a slight menthol note.
Taste: Demerara sugar sweetness with soft orchard fruit – apple pie with vanilla ice cream. The back of the palate offers some earthy spice with a kick of cocoa powder.
Finish: A nice full finish with lots of toffee and baking spice which dries out to leave a faint hint of red liquorice.
23rd: Highland Park 12 Year Old
The penultimate day of advent brings us an absolute classic single malt, from Highland Park distillery. Based in Kirkwall on Orkney, Highland Park is the most northerly distillery in Scotland (for now anyway, there’s certainly room further north on Orkney!) and enjoys a large cult following and a well-deserved reputation for high quality single malts. The whisky produced tends to be a masterclass in balance with a layered richness, floral aspects and a smoke from the local peat vastly different from that which you would experience in an Islay malt – certainly something to think about for those who do not believe in terroir affecting whisky! Highland Park’s marketing and packaging often celebrates the Norse culture one finds on Orkney, with depictions of Viking gods and legends fairly common on special release labels. Some of the limited release bottlings do come in quite ostentatious packaging which can put people off, but the whisky inside is consistently good stuff and today’s dram – the entry-level 12 Year Old – is a great example of letting the whisky do the talking.
Nose: Creamy toffee, heather honey soaked raisins. There is a tangy orange marmalade, and a soft gentle smoke throughout. Given some time, the freshness of green apples and a faint hint of wheatgrass can be detected.
Taste: A lovely cereal richness is immediately present alongside golden syrup. There is also chocolate orange, dried fruit and roasted almonds.
Finish: Rich fruit cake, old oak and an increasing waft of gentle smoke.
24th: The Half Century Blend Batch 1
We sadly reach the end of Advent today but the chaps at Drinks by the Dram ensure we go out with a bang. In the same manner in which we began this journey, we end with a cracking whisky from The Blended Whisky Company. Today we have The Half Century Blend, a blend of whiskies each of which has been aged for “a minimum of” 50 years. Counting back, this takes us to the 1960s and before the whisky boom that saw much expansion and increased production in the industry. This was a time when distillers were un-shackled by concerns of efficiency and yield, a time of low-yield barley strains, long fermentation, direct-fired stills and worm tubs. A time where wood manipulation had less of an impact on the eventual flavour of whisky than the spirit itself. Unfortunately it seems that the component whiskies of The Half Century Blend are a closely-guarded secret, but nonetheless this dram – from a batch of only 768 bottles – promises to be a unique window into a by-gone era.
Nose: Lots of rich vanilla cream and coffee truffles initially, banana split with a crumble topping and toasted walnuts. There is a note of old leather and polished oak panelling lingering throughout. Given some time in the glass an added dimension of freshness appears in the form of spice-poached orchard fruit and even some tropical notes.
Taste: A gorgeous mouthfeel with lots of malt cereal, very fruity with tinned peaches and other fruity aspects that are almost reminiscent of Irish whiskey. Vanilla plays a supporting role, with cinnamon and nutmeg making an appearance towards the back of the palate.
Finish: A very long finish which starts with apple crumble with cinnamon and vanilla custard. This becomes jammier in time with apricot jam and peach butter.
And with that, The Whisky Advent Calendar is complete! I have had a lot of fun with this; discovering new expressions and whiskies I had not previously come across, revisiting old classics and sampling new offerings from familiar distilleries as well as being treated to some very classy whisky indeed. Thank you to Drinks by the Dram for such a fun product and to Mrs Share for buying it for me and putting up with me writing about whisky every day in a busy run-up to Christmas! For those still reading I hope you have gained as much from sharing this journey with me as I have from sipping and savouring some fantastic whisk(e)y. Slàinte, and Merry Christmas!