At times, the wine world is not far removed from that of whisky. Whilst the term “reserve” has no real (or legal) meaning, some wineries will set aside a quantity of their best liquid to mature in expensive old oak. Others will add some fancy gold leaf to the label, hike the price and call it reserve. Many will just put the word on every single bottle they produce and hope that consumers take the bait. Whisky is no different – reserve and other hackneyed phrases such as “select” are increasingly utilised to entice consumers, but at the same time offer no actual useful information. Indeed, in many cases they suggest a level of exceptionality and uniqueness that simply doesn’t exist.
I’m becoming increasingly adverse to puffy phraseology. New releases containing any form of reserve, select, premium, handpicked etc are starting to give me the shudders. There are nearly 3,000 bottles on Whiskybase that utilise reserve in their titles (the oldest example I can find being a 1901 Stronachie Reserve), with well over 100 added over the past two years. Perhaps it’s a case of language fatigue – how many different words for “special” can marketeers find using a thesaurus? Or, more likely, it’s that my experiences with many of these so-named expressions has been disappointingly poor.
But, similar to wine, there are plenty of exceptional whiskies that stand true to the sense that reserve/select actually does mean something distinctive. Chivas’s Distillery Reserve Selection are all limited releases - some are drawn from distilleries in the company’s portfolio that don’t currently produce any OBs, others are interesting cask and maturation variants that stand in stark difference to the core range products produced at the same sites. But, across this series the use of both reserve and selection feels suitable. Then, there’s the likes of Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve – where the only reservation that has taken place is of common or garden 1st fill ex-bourbon barrels designed to mask the underlying rawness of the spirit. Here the term is purely utilised to tempt the consumer in to believing that they’re purchasing something of higher quality and cachet than they actually are.
One place where you’re guaranteed to find considerable name blarney is in travel retail. Ever the strange world in terms of whisky – at Heathrow there’s currently somewhere in the region of two dozen reserve and select expressions available – and many more bizarrely named NAS expressions (but that’s another story). The Speyside powerhouse distilleries of Macallan, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich lead the charge with a raft of reserves and select expressions. Indeed, in the case of Glenfiddich’s Cask Collection series, they’ve locked in the holy trinity with Select Cask, Reserve Cask and Vintage Cask.
We’ll take a look at the middle expression of the series – the <shudder> Reserve Cask. The whisky, first released in 2015 has been matured in sherry casks (seemingly Spanish, so quite probably oloroso) and then married in one of Glenfiddich giant solera vats. It’s bottled at 40% ABV and available in the airport for just over £43 for a litre. Now, that’s far from a bad price for that quantity of whisky – however should you buy the bottle outside of travel retail you’ll be looking at around £60 – which is a considerable hike.
Nose: A pleasant ‘standard’ Speyside profile – ripe apples, cider, plenty of toffee. The sherry influence comes through with fresh red berries, orange peels and a scattering of raisins. In the background woodiness – but not overwrought – and touches of leather and cinnamon spicing along with pastry crusts and almonds.
Taste: As watery and thin as you’d expect from a 40% travel retail expression – but, harmless enough. Plenty of honey, toffee and maltiness sitting with apple pie, vanilla cream and steeped black tea. The mid-palate development is incredibly quick – blink and you’ll miss it - woody dryness, a sprinkle of pepper and a touch of musty damp earth.
Finish: Cliff-edge short and pretty meek with it. But, there is some maturity screaming to be let out of the cellar - with dry and tannic oak.
Glenfiddich Reserve Cask is inoffensive stuff and if bought for the travel retail price of £43, there’s not much to complain about. The selection of sweet Speyside-driven flavours works well and is largely balanced. But, at the same time, both the mouthfeel and finish are particularly anaemic, so I’d be very wary about ‘reserving’ this one outside of an airport, where your £60 will stretch much further.