I’m often asked by my non-whisky friends why I visit so many distilleries. Surely, they say “….they’re all exactly the same, haven’t you seen it all many times before?”. Well, in technical sense yes – water, barley and yeast = whisky – and the processes of mashing, fermentation and distillation are common across all distilleries in their essence. But, it’s the differences – some incredibly subtle – at each and every stage of the whisky making process which result in marked variances of the end liquid. The minutiae of the processes operated across different distilleries *are* different. And they’re important. A change here, or a change there will have a dramatic effect on the flavour and character of the eventual whisky. To the uninitiated it’s easy to understand why things might look the same, but under the hood, there’s a reason why whiskies are different.
Fettercairn is a distillery who’s differences are more visually apparent than most. An open-topped mash tun (always fun to see in operation) produces a cloudy wort – this results in a more malty, nutty and spicy spirit style as opposed to a clear wort which centres on sweetness rather than cereal character. But, perhaps the biggest alteration from the norm comes with Fettercairn’s stills.
In the 1950’s the distillery experimented with methods to lighten the style of their whisky – rather than playing with their mash or wash, they fashioned a copper ring around the swan neck of the spirit still which is used to spray cool water down it’s sides. Think of it as a little industrial waterfall. The additional cooling from the water increases both condensation and reflux and ensures that only the lightest vapours rise through the neck of the still. A neat retrofitted invention. The ring is still in use today and is, to the best of my knowledge, the only one of its kind in the world.
Distillation at Fettercairn is still a process of evaporation and condensation – so, as my friends would suggest – exactly the same as everywhere else. However, not only is the distillery’s cooling ring unique, it’s also an integral part of what makes Fettercairn unique – both in terms of industrial innovation and also as a key contributor to their spirit character and whisky style. It’s these differences which keep me visiting distilleries - time and time again. And if we want our whiskies to have marked differences in aromas and flavours, and not become a homogenised corpus of liquid, it’s these differences which should be celebrated.
Fettercairn have been looking to increase their single malt profile over the last two years. The introduction of a newly composed and newly branded core range has gone some way to opening eyes to the still little known distillery. As a primer, feel free to read our reviews of the revitalised range (12, 28, 40 and 50 year olds). Now, there’s a new Fettercairn on the block…
Fettercairn 12 year old PX Finish has recently been launched in the UK as a travel exclusive. Taking the same basis of American white oak ex-bourbon casks as the standard 12 year old, this expression has been finished for 18-24 months in Pedro Ximenez sherry. It’s delivered at 40% ABV, and is available at an RRP of £60 – for a litre-sized bottle.
Nose: Fettercairn yeastiness meets sweet sherry. Orange peels, juice and marmalade (there’s a lot of orange here) sit with golden syrup and dehydrated mango slices. Malty loaves and oven-baked buns are joined by dusty spices – cinnamon and allspice - whilst ripe berries (cranberry and strawberry), Eton Mess, stem ginger and crushed hazelnuts emphasise the influence of the PX finish. It’s sweet. Super sweet.
Taste: The natural weight of the spirit isn’t allowed to shine at 40%. There’s some viscosity, but once it gets beyond the front of the mouth it feels underpowered and rather anaemic. The flavour delivery is better – orange sherbet, stone fruit preserves, dried mangos and a side bowl of stewed currants. Running throughout – characterful distillery notes of maltiness, porridge and yeasty bread - livened by white pepper and allspice. Resting is beneficial, offering an easier equilibrium between the spirit and the cask. It adds orange liqueurs and stem ginger whilst assimilating some of the sourer notes into the sweeter ones. Patience Padawan.
Finish: Short to medium, with chocolate digestives, ginger and bitter oakiness.
As opposed to being an entirely different beast, this PX finished Fettercairn clearly presents similarities to its standard 12 year old cousin. The underlying character of malty, yeasty, fruitiness is present and correct – and it’s still interesting – offering more stimulation than many run-of-the mill 12 year old bottlings. But, whether the Pedro Ximenez finish has actually elevated the experience is, to my palate, open to question.
The sherry has added an overlay of tasty berries and jammy fruits, but the additional sweetness feels overly saccharine and uneasy. Those of you who possess a particularly sweet tooth might well find that your mileage varies here – but I’m going to be sticking to the standard 12 year old for the time being.
Review sample provided by Fettercairn.