Every time we hear a name, we make assumptions – about people, companies and brands. Indeed, for countless generations humankind has been preoccupied with names – we label everything. And indeed despite no one wanting to be put into any sort of particular box, we naturally invent new boxes to put ourselves in to regardless. Words have a proven psychological effect – even on a base level, certain letters (k,t,z etc) when pronounced phonetically sound angular and jagged, whereas others (l,m,n etc) have more of a feeling of roundness and smoothness. In the case of whisky, brand names, bottler names and even distillery names all can be judged by both their allure as a word, but perhaps more practically, we can see impacts in terms of their desirability. Shakespeare was quite right to ask what’s in a name – names are important.
Listen, I’m not going to tell you that the only reason which the likes of Ardbeg and Macallan have such cache is purely down to their names – as we all know, a combination of history, fandom, marketing and perceived quality/lifestyle all have their influences. But, the distillery names themselves do continue to reinforce these perceptions. Look at it this way – if you were a green newbie taking your first steps into whisky enthusiasm, a little time on the Internet would quickly get you up to speed with which distilleries, brands and bottlers are observed in particular ways.
Some of these observations (and indeed other people's bandied around assumptions) may often be grossly overstated – but they stick. Remember Mortlach? Yeah, not that long ago the name was near synonymous with overpriced, underpowered and under filled (50cl) bottlings – at least in its OB form. But, to the unbloodied, the marketing spoke otherwise (obviously) – tales of luxury, of 2.81 times distillation (which require a short sit down, and likely a diagram alongside to fully understand). But, the association of the former to the brand name won out and the range was completely rethought and rebuilt last year. It might take a little time – but owners Diageo are hoping that the name of Mortlach conjures up different (and better) associations to its previous guise.
Similarly, you’ll see the importance of names with bottlers – most built on reputation. Some built on reputation over a considerable period of time. But all of these come with in-built associations – Whisky Broker….variable quality, but one of the last bastions of very fair pricing, Boutique-y….friendly, diverse, and steadily increasing in price since AB InBev purchased their parent company Atom Brands. Then again, perhaps these are my associations? I’d posit that I’m far from the only one who holds them – but names mean different things to different people.
This is certainly the case when it comes to distillery names. The Internet and social media can be a wonderful thing – in my opinion they're one of the most significant contributors to the current boom we see in whisky. But at the same time, they're regularly opinion bubble – I see the same brands and bottles cited and photographed again and again on a daily basis. Of course there’s some variance – Facebook: countless photos of ‘collections’ (AKA the whisky room). On Twitter: either the darkest of sherried whiskies or the peatiest of peaty whiskies. On Instagram: it doesn’t really matter, but it's likely expensive, and it’s also likely unopened (put it back on the shelf – no you can’t afford to crack it open in real life). I generalise – massive. But, the point being that with such fusses for bottle X and distillery Y other interesting things are often overlooked.
You’d do well to look at a list of distilleries (Scotland is up to nearly 130 now) and glance over to see what you’ve not tried. Chances are many of you have spent the past 12 months focussed on less than 50% of that list. Taking lost and closed distilleries out of the equation, there’ll still be plenty to explore. It might mean moving out of your comfort zone, and it certainly will mean trying some different distillery names. But, I guarantee you that broadening your horizons away from your norms will be worth it. I’m just a guilty as the next person – we all have our preferences and looking at what I’ve reviewed and knowing what I regularly drink – I should keep ensuring that I’m not sticking to all of my naming associations quite so ardently. It’s a big wide world out there.
That brings us onto today’s review – and, case in point, a distillery which is not bottled all that frequently, and indeed one which has undergone a name change. Braeval is a modern distillery – founded by Chivas Brothers (at the time part of Seagrams) in 1973. It’s original name was Braes of Glenlivet, but like the handful of other distilleries who used a Glenlivet suffix, its name was changed (in 1994) – allegedly to avoid confusion, more likely to avoid legal action. The distillery is notable for several reasons – it was one of the first of the newer sites where all of the production processes were sited in a single space (always good in aiding the understanding of how things work), but it’s also not bottled too frequently. To date there's been only three OBs – all produced for the Chivas Distillery Reserve Collection. Yet, Braeval is not any type of ‘rare’ liquid. And with a capacity of 4.2 MLPA it’s also hardly tiny either. In no real surprise, much of the output of the distillery goes to support Chivas’s various blends. But, you will find it bottled by indies – just not ten a penny. Over the last 5 or so years there’s been around 10 Braeval indy bottlings each year from a variety of bottlers.
Mine comes via Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice New Map label – you know, the one just before their recent makeover. It’s created from refill American hogsheads laid down in 1998 and bottled 18 years later in 2016 at 46% ABV. You’ll still find a few online for around £115 – though that’s a fair whack on the original RRP which was a shy under £70. Indeed, if you’re interested, keen an eye on auctions for Braeval – in my opinion, its name doesn’t command the prices you'll see of others, therefore you might find the odd inexpensive bottling or two (that’s what I did).
Nose: Sweetshop cues – candy necklaces and iced gems alongside both honey and honeysuckle. Herbals teas are joined by tinned apricots whilst crème patisserie is piped over a freshly made sponge cake. Dilution isn’t required, but does reveals additional orange influence – mandarin and tangerine - alongside further florals from violets and sunflowers.
Taste: Markedly richer and bolder than the nose. Polished oak and lacquered tables lead off, alongside orange marmalade and a compote of apricots and ripe plums. The mid-palate offers up Battenberg cake and candied ginger before tartness and sweetness from grapefruit, preserved lemons and barley water intensifies in the back. The addition of water expresses soft juicy peaches alongside old fashioned orange liqueurs and bitters.
Finish: Quite long with fresh barley, almond paste and a touch of near chalkiness.
You might consider this Braeval to be understated – at times it seems dainty, gentle and somewhat inconspicuous. But, on the flip-side it’s both elegantly quaffable and comes with its near two decades of maturation well in check. The wood (because it’s refill) gives plenty of room for the spirit to shine, so despite it being softly spoken, the room itself is hushed and you can still hear it clearly. Forgiving and yet with a touch of indulgence.