What exactly makes a classic whisky classic? Longevity? Consistency? Wide consumer appeal? Competitive pricing? It would be hard to create a definitive list of the classics – styles vary greatly, as do personal tastes. But, perhaps there are some talismans that most malt enthusiasts would agree are archetypal or even timeless? Lagavulin 16 year old and Laphroaig 10 year old both spring immediately to my mind – well regarded bottlings that you’ll see just as commonly on the shelves of a local pub as you would in a specialist whisky bar. But, just taking expressions which have broad cross-over appeal would be a very narrow view of what might be a classic whisky.
The Classic Malts of Scotland series was first introduced in 1988 and sought to highlight six different distillery expressions differentiated by their regional style. The line-up changed slightly over the years (the original United Distiller’s selection was: Dalwhinnie 15 year old, Talisker 10 year old, Cragganmore 12 year old, Oban 14 year old, Lagavulin 16 year old and Glenkinchie 12 year old), but until relatively recently the essence of the series has been approximately the same as when it was conceived: well-regarded, well-priced, entry-level bottlings from a range of generally better-known distilleries. An ideal starting point.
But, if you take a look at the modern incarnation of Diageo’s Classics, things look rather different now: https://www.malts.com/en-gb/home/. There’s not quite the definitive list that there once was, but five malts receive particular attention in being described as ‘Five Classics’ – Talisker and Lagavulin still receive the high billing they’ve always had, but are joined by Cardhu, Mortlach and The Singleton. Wait a minute. What?
What does being classic actually really mean anymore?
This is a far cry away from the Classic Malts of Scotland series – I doubt very few would argue that OB Mortlachs and Singletons are currently well-regarded, well-priced (particularly Mortlach!), entry-level bottlings from better-known distilleries. The use of the word classic has become rather dilute – a term now banded around nearly as much as the dreaded ‘hand crafted’ or ‘artisan’ – of little meaning beyond that of attempting to raise the profile, and revenue of distilleries that have spent most of their life as blend-fillers. That’s not to say that these bottlings might not become considered classics in the future, but it seems to me to be quite the stretch presently. And at the very least this demonstrates the current schism in the market between what consumers what to buy, and what producers want to persuade consumers to want to buy. The two are far from the same.
That brings us neatly on to today’s review – a Diageo whisky that I believe should, at some point, be regarded as a classic - certainly over the likes of Mortlach and The Singleton! Clynelish is currently buried by Diageo within their ‘wider range’. It’s popular and well-regarded within enthusiast circles, but has not yet broken out and garnered the mainstream appeal that I think it deserves - Diageo have done little to assist it – The £600 ‘Special Reserve’ released in 2014 did the brand no favours whatsoever.
Clynelish’s waxy style is as unique as Lagavulin’s sweet peat, or Talisker’s heavy coastal influence, and in the case of the 14 year old, that we’re going to be taking a look at, it’s a well-priced, entry level expression. Perhaps it’s simply not been around long enough as a single malt to merit the status I’m suggesting for it – but then when you look at the current ‘Classic Five’, this would hardly rule it out. But, as an evocative, accessible, relatively easily obtainable whisky (£43.63 from Master of Malt as of writing) I’d highly recommend adding it to your try list if you’ve not done so already.
Nose: Initially delicate, this opens up after a short period of resting to offer heathery honey (lots of bees here), elderflower, orange blossom and some orchard fruit (unripe apples and pears). Underlying maltiness is reinforced by some breadiness and slightly umami egg noodles. In the background is some feint brine and smoke - not fully coastal, but certainly discernible.
Taste: A silky arrival with a slightly thin, but evocatively waxy mouthfeel - think of it as weight or even texture. Malts, caramel and honey lead off, being joined quickly by orange peels, and stone fruits - peaches and apricots. In the back palate, the balance changes slightly, focussing more on salty toffee and brine, with fruitiness subsiding nicely into the distance.
Finish: Medium in length, with slight pepperiness, salted caramel and some hints of candied lemon peels.
Clynelish 14 year old is a solid entry into a currently slightly unusual style of whisky (waxiness used to be much more prevalent). Part fruity, part beehive and part coastal, Clynelish is naturally very characterful and this is no exception. Whilst still a touch raw in places, particularly on the arrival, that can seem a touch ‘hot’ (though I find that resting helps with this) there’s more than enough quality and charm here to make this an easy recommendation as a good daily drinker. Classic? Currently perhaps not thought of as such - and positioned by Diageo more as a 'hidden gem'. I'd argue that this distillery deserves to be marketed much wider than to just enthusiast circles with expensive special releases and occassional Distiller's Editions. A future classic? Maybe.
But don't take our word for it..
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