Whisky Squad #15 – Highlanders

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time then you know the drill by now – first week of the month = Whisky Squad. We were joined again by Rob Whitehead of Berry Brothers & Rudd, this time leading the session rather than just being an enthusiastic punter. The topic was Highlanders: whiskies from the ‘other’ region in Scotland. Strictly speaking calling the Highlands a region is a little misleading as the easiest definition is “all of Scotland that isn’t in the other regions” – everything north of the Highland Line that joins Edinburgh and Glasgow, excluding Speyside, Islay and Campbelltown. Going along with large geographic variation is a general lack of underlying style – the area encompasses everything from punchy Talisker to light Glengoyne and pretty much anything in between. It’s the largest region by area and the second by number of distilleries and production of spirit, beaten only by densely populated Speyside. Whether the islands other than Islay should be considered part of the region is often debated, with the SMWS splitting them off as a separate ‘Highland Islands’ region in their releases (but they also divide up Speyside as well), and Rob sidestepped that point by (sort of) sticking to distilleries on the mainland.

IMG_8386The first whisky was quite light and had a nose of salted caramel, nuts (walnuts & almonds?), damp forest, sour orange, brine and fresh green vegetables. To taste it had butter, salt & pepper, a touch of fizzy fruit sweetness, and a lingering sweet and sour fruit finish. Water brought out some grapes and lengthened the sweetness of the finish. When the whisky sock was pulled off (as Rob brought along his set of BBR bottle concealing socks, although this time they were augmented by one knitted for the squad by occasional visitor Ruth) it was shown to be a John Milroy 7 Year Old Pulteney. That’s a Pulteney that’s 7 years old, rather than an Old Pulteney, as the latter is the name of the whisky produced for Inver House at the Pulteney distillery. John (generally known as Jack) Milroy was one of the two brothers that opened Milroy’s of Soho in 1964, the shop that was the template from which pretty much all whisky shops have been stamped out since. Doug McIvor, Berry’s whisky king, used to work there and now that he’s at Berry’s him and Jack sit down from time to time to select a few casks to be bottled under the Milroy name. Rob selected this one as our opener due to the way that we do tastings at Whisky Squad – we try the whisky blind and then guess the age, strength and (if feeling brave) the distillery. We don’t generally get these right and regular Dave has in recent times decided to guess that all whiskies are 7 years old. In order to help him guess right at least once Rob brought this one along, only to be foiled by Dave guessing 8 this time. The whisky was matured in an ex-bourbon barrel specifically purchased as an ‘old refill’ and was retired after this whisky was decanted. The knackered nature of the barrel meant that it didn’t influence the whisky too much, keeping it light and reflecting some of the citrus and brine that you get in Pulteney new make. Unfortunately this one has already sold out.

IMG_8387Number two was a little bit darker and had a nose that developed quite quickly in the glass. On first pour it was quite earthy with mulchy leaves, but that quickly blew away to be replaced by Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples, lime cordial, red fruit and vanilla, as well as floral notes that got stronger as it sat. To taste there were apple boiled sweets, candle wax, vanilla, grapes, orange peel and a hint of menthol at the back of the mouth which lingered into the fruit finish. Water brought out a bit of biscuit and cardboard on the finish and some waxy hand cream to the middle of the flavour. The sock came off to reveal that it was a Berry’s Own Selection Glencadam 1991, bottled in 2004. I usually rather like Glencadam, after a very tasty SMWS release led to me picking up their own 15 year old bottling, and this one continued that trend. They’ve not been releasing distillery editions for long, with independent bottlers being the only way of getting a single malt until 2005 when new owners Angus Dundee Distillers, who bought the distillery in 2003, brought out the 15 year old. Since then they’ve expanded the range with a 10 year old appearing in 2008, with a relaunch of the 15 year old at the same time, and in 2010 a 12 year old port finish, 14 year old oloroso finish and a 21 year old. Up until the 2003 purchase Glencadam has had a bit of a checkered history, being closed several times since its opening in 1825, and was mothballed in 2004 when the Berry’s 1991 was bottled. This whisky sold out before Rob started at Berry’s in 2006 and was pulled out of their rather extensive archives, making two whiskies in this tasting that we probably won’t find again.

IMG_8389Next was another darker whisky, although it was difficult to see exactly in the rather dimly lit tasting room, and within seconds of nosing it inspired a cry of ‘sherry’. On the nose it had sour fruit, sherry wood, burned meaty bits, hints of brine and forest leaves. To taste it started with a powdery icing sugar sweetness which faded to sour red grape, stewed tea, sour fruit and spice, and finished with sour fruit and lightly tannic wood. Water brought out a touch of salty ‘old sweaty sock’ on the nose as well as dulling the smell in general. In the taste, dilution lengthened the sweetness at the front and added a bit of card on the finish. The sock came off and this one was a Berry’s Own Selection Blair Atholl 1998, bottled in 2009. Blair Atholl is another distillery that doesn’t produce much whisky as single malt, with the vast majority going into Bell’s and a Flora & Fauna bottling being the main place to find it on its own. The distillery is in Pitlochry, on the southern borders of the Cairngorms, and has been owned by Diageo since they bought up Arthur Bells & Sons in 1985.

IMG_8392Number four was still darker and had a nose of plums, galia melon, royal icing, polished wood, vanilla, cream, a hint of strawberry shrimp and some cement-like minerality. To taste it started with sweet pastry, sour plums and worked its way through hints of stone and touches of green leaves to a finish of cardboard, and lemon rind and pith. Water simplified things, with sweetness leading to fruit leading to lemon rind – one to drink at bottle strength. This was revealed to be Berry’s Own Teaninich 1973, bottled in 2010 for a total of 37 years of maturation. It was made up of two casks and bottled at cask strength of 41.8% and sells for about £135, one of the most expensive Berry’s Own bottlings that they’ve done. This is in part due to buying the casks old, rather than Berry’s usual plan of buying them at filling time and then looking after them during maturation – it’s more of a gamble, but is much cheaper than buying the casks when you can see how good they are at the end of maturation. Teaninich is another Diageo distillery that mainly sees the light of day through blends and a Flora & Fauna bottling, and it’s near to Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon and Dalmore distilleries on the north side of the Cromarty Firth near to Alness. Outside of Diageo’s various products it’s also a favourite of Compass Box, appearing in their Asyla and Oak Cross blends.

IMG_8397Number five was brought along by co-founder Jason rather than Rob and had a rather dodgy looking thin topped cork. Rob couldn’t say much about the whisky for fear of giving away what it was, so we went straight in for a taste. On the nose it had wet leaves, hints of brine, a touch of wood smoke, nettles, candy floss and baked beans. The taste was rather uncomplicated, but quite pleasant, with wood smoke, woody fruit, butter, marzipan and a slightly beany finish with some more fruit. Water calmed down a bit of the alcoholic burn and brought out a bit more fruit, but didn’t really improve things. When the sock came off it became quite obvious why they couldn’t say much – it was Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt, also known as ‘The Shackleton Whisky’. This one has quite the story behind it and is a marketing department’s wet dream. When explorer Ernest Shackleton was forced to abandon his Antarctic expedition in 1909 he left lots of supplies in his hut and during excavations on the site in 2006 a case of whisky was found. Over the last 5 years it has been moved to New Zealand to be thawed, and eventually a couple of bottles were handcuffed to Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson and flown back to Scotland in W&M owner Vijay Mallya’s private jet. Paterson extracted a small amount of liquid through the cork with a syringe and recreated the blend for this special bottling. As only he and whisky writer Dave Broom have tasted it noone knows for sure quite how accurate it is, but it’s a nice whisky. This edition is limited to ‘just’ 50k bottles and at £100 (with a fiver going to the Antarctic Heritage Trust) it should net W&M a tidy sum. I’m not sure it’s quite worth £100 for the liquid, nice as it is, but with the old-style replica bottle (complete with dodgy cork) and pretty wooden box (containing a more durable cork) it gets a bit closer. I think I’ll wait until they revive the Mackinlay’s name, as I’m sure they will, and sell a hopefully similar but cheaper whisky.

IMG_8400The last whisky of the evening was very dark and a quick nose showed that it was a sherry monster – prunes, burnt meat, rum, moss and hazelnuts and an alcoholic punch that got right into the sinuses. To taste there was pipe tobacco, coffee, very dry fruit, chocolate and a fruit and tar finish. It was quite closed at full strength and water helped open up all of those flavours to be more distinct, with some more brandy/rum notes and a touch of menthol coming through. When the sock came off Rob admitted to cheating somewhat – this was from the highlands, but not the highlands of Scotland (hence the ‘sort of’ back in paragraph one). It was the Whisky Magazine Editor’s Choice Karuizawa 15 year old from Japan, bottled by Berry’s in 2007. The distillery is quite central on Japan’s main island of Honshu, in the foothills of Mount Asama, the most active volcano on the island. This whisky came from a single first fill American oak sherry butt, with an outturn of 308 bottles, and has really taken on a lot of sherry wood flavour. It’s quite a mad whisky and as such there are still bottles left, one of which will shortly be finding its way into my whisky cupboard.

The final whisky this time is a seque into next month’s tastings. After a year of bimbling around Scotland The Squad will be making its first major foray overseas for two Japanese whisky tastings next month. More details will appear on the Whisky Squad site soon…

John Milroy 7 Year Old Pulteney
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. Sold out. Was ~£30.

Berry’s Own Selection Glencadam 1991
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. Sold out. Was ~£35-45.

Berry’s Own Selection Blair Atholl 1998
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35.

Berry’s Own Selection Teaninich 1973
Highland cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 41.8%. ~£135.

Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt
Blended Scotch whisky, 47.3%. ~£100.

Whisky Magazine Editor’s Choice Karuizawa 15 Year Old
Cask strength single cask single malt Japanese whisky, 60.6%. ~£75.

Thanks to Alan for the lend of his camera and uploading the piccies to Flickr.

CC BY-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.