Square pegs, round holes

Posted 21 February 2020 by Matt / In Allt-a-Bhainne
The Dramble reviews Allt-a-Bhainne Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Bottle Name: Allt-a-Bhainne Single Malt Scotch Whisky

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Allt-a-Bhainne
Region: Speyside

There are somethings which just don’t go together – oil and water, pineapple and pizza, toasters and bathtubs. The same is arguably true of whisky – not everything can and should work. And whilst it’s often admirable that producers try to push the envelope both of what’s possible, and of what’s expected, there’s a danger that when a product becomes so wrapped up in a desire to be ‘different’ that it can lose the very heart of what made that liquid unique in the first place. Whisky cannot and doesn’t need to be everything to all people. But, sadly that alone doesn’t stop producers trying to push square pegs in to round holes nevertheless

Distillate characters do not have infinite elasticity when it comes to their malleability. By that, I mean that each distillery’s spirit(s) have inherent qualities that won’t necessarily lend themselves to all forms of maturation. Some (Caol Ila is a prime example) are exceedingly versatile, being adaptable to a variety of ages and cask types. Others (let’s say Tomintoul) have more delicate profiles which won’t naturally lend themselves to being blasted with super active 1st fill sherry – some simply show off their character better when served at a younger age.

Over the past decade I’ve seen a wide range of traditionally unpeated distilleries venture into peated production. Taken in isolation – why not? You don’t truly know how your spirit is going to react to the addition of smoke until you’ve tried it – likely in several different ways. However when it comes to the older established distilleries – there are simply some distilleries who do peat well, and some who don’t. Or perhaps more pertinently don’t need to.

Whilst the announcement that Glendronach had ceased using peated barley was met in some quarters with sadness, I considered Brown-Forman’s decision to be absolutely on the money. Glendronach’s reputation has been forged on its sherried credentials, not its peat. Simply bolting smoke into the recipe in an attempt to gain an additional segment of the drinking market never to my mind felt natural or indeed particularly successful. Sticking to what you do best will likely result in more consistent product and also a more consistent message to present to your customers. I’ll say again - whisky cannot and doesn’t need to be everything to all people.

It’s part of the skill of distillers and blenders to understand what makes a particular distillate unique – both chemically and appreciably. It’s part of the skill set of marketeers and product managers to understand how to communicate this uniqueness and how to work with production teams to craft expressions which feel inherently sympathetic to the base ingredients, whilst at the same being relevant to the needs of the current market. Often these requirements meet neatly in the middle and the customer is presented with some tasty whisky. But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes there’s a disconnect within the process.

Whisky as a product *is* about more than just the liquid. No don’t worry, I’m not going to tangent into a defence of bottle shrines and collecting ‘pieces of history’- I still staunchly believe that whisky should be a consumable good. But as a consumable good, whisky’s presentation, packaging, marketing and messaging *is* important. You dismiss it, but all of these facets drive our initial visual perceptions (we see whisky before we nose it and taste it – usually), they guide our observations for what a product should be, why it was created and how it should appeal to our individuals tastes. And on the most base level they tell us where a whisky is available and how much it’ll cost us. You can’t beat down the marketeers and PRs too much – they are a required cog in the machine that presents you with the bottlings which you’re excited to open and to taste.

But at the same time, these folk (erm….my folk) are often responsible for some of whisky’s biggest disconnects. Of forcing pegs into incorrect holes. Times when the link between a product and the customer feels feebly constructed, or where the ‘pitch’ seems  so completely out of step with either the market or the distillery’s origins and ethos (Mortlach Old Rare anyone?). Whilst all of you are no doubt marcomms experts (it’s easy right?!), it’s fair to say that there’s a growing race to the bottom when it comes to whisky communication.

Industry growth has led to an explosion of releases and this sea of bottlings which all require promotion has in turn resulted in a depressing dearth of marketing ability to convey what makes a particular product unique and worthwhile of consumer attention. Cue a deluge of generic buzzword heavy press releases, or as we’ll go on to look at shortly – spurious, grandstanding. Either way, this type of promotion does whisky few favours – not everything has to be ‘the first’, ‘the largest’, ‘the greatest’ – and indeed, by messaging in this manner, whilst this might lead to some initial intrigue, the end result is more than likely simply increased disappointment when the product turns out to not taste in the manner which is has been described.

Allt-a-Bhainne has been a blending whisky for much of its 45 year existence - bottled infrequently even by independents. It was therefore with some surprise that I noted the distillery’s maiden OB expression back in 2018. And I quickly discounted it from my long list of whiskies that I actively wanted to seek out and try. And that’s entirely because of the press materials which accompanied it.

Whilst Allt-a-Bhainne has traditionally been an unpeated single malt, within the past decade, owners Chivas have been experimenting with peated runs at the site. And it’s a peated – albeit lightly (as denoted by the bottle byline ‘Just enough smoke to start a fire’) – expression that was selected as the distillery’s first official single malt bottling. The release is bottled at a supermarket friendly 40% ABV and the price is somewhat similarly pitched - £31.17 from Amazon. Though it's worth noting that this has been offered cheaper over the past 12 months. Anyhow, not immediately eye opening, but on the surface interesting enough.

But when the accompanying text starts to talk about peating a Speysider as being “bold”, “breaking from convention” and of “shaking up single malt Scotch” alarm bells start to ring.

Peated Speysiders are both a facet of Scotland’s history (peat as a fuel source, not solely as a flavour) as well as far from uncommon in today’s market. The fact that not all of them work – profile wise – see above. But as a process, there’s nothing remotely new here, let alone a break with convention. This is lazy marketing of the highest order – from a team who have either been presented with some liquid and have no clues as to how to describe it, or even from a team who have decided that they do in fact want to break the mould, but then have been presented with a liquid so insipid as to make their desires for boldness frankly laughable.

The end result is a thorough case of square peg, round hole – a whisky with a profile that doesn’t feel integrated or natural, and who’s proposition and message rings completely hollow. Sad times.

Nose: Straight-forward orchard fruit esters – pears drops and apple peels alongside some over-ripe melon juice. Plenty of sweetness – candy canes and artificial honey (inverted sugar cream), but little discernible peat influence straight out of the bottle. It does arrive, with a little patience – but I’m not sure it’s worth waiting for - dusty floors, burning electrical circuit boards and waterlogged soils.

Taste: The arrival is watery (what did you expect?) and presents tart and biting fruits – again apples and pears, but this time all pith and no pulp. Then follows some vague grassiness and a particularly whacky chewing gum/mint note. Finally, we’re into anthracite and burnt plastic alongside acerbic oakiness.

Finish: Longer than expected – but being all ambiguous grassiness and sour, tannic oak, longer than I’d like.

Allt-a-Bhainne’s first foray into an original bottling (outside of the Chivas Distillery Reserve Collection) is sadly something of a disaster. Taking young whisky and dashing it with a couple of casks of (likely even younger) peated spirit is no recipe for creating a balanced, enjoyable single malt – but that’s exactly what this feels like. Whilst the nose is OK enough, the palate is poorly composed, offering little integration – particularly when it comes to the peated element, which comes across as synthetic, forced and largely out of place.

There are other options for exploring peated Allt-a-Bhainne - SMWS have recently been releasing an array of bottles of 108, which have been (as much as I’ve tasted to date) more successful in their single cask format. Here, when a product has become entirely wrapped up in the marketing team’s desire for “boldness” the result is anything but. At best insipid. Actively avoid.

Score: 66/100

Master of Malt
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