Game of Thrones – violence, incest, missile-grade swearing and boobs. Perhaps not the most obvious combination for blockbuster TV but nevertheless, 16.1 million people tuned in for the season seven finale – and I suspect an even higher number will now be glued to their boxes for the final season eight. No spoilers – I have to wait until later this evening. The shows’ success lies (beyond the quality of the source material) in being quite different to all other prime-time series that have gone before it. High-ish fantasy has always been rather the niche. But, it didn’t always start that way – launched in 2011, it wasn’t until 2014 that its popularity (driven by an unparalleled level of piracy) elevated it to the status of HBO’s biggest ever hit. And, at that point, a target ripe for partnership with whisky’s powerhouse Diageo.
Product tie-ins have existed since the dawn of the entertainment era. Perhaps the earliest example of the assimilation of entertainment with brands was some 99 years ago. The Buster Keaton/Fatty Arbuckle short film ‘The Garage’ released in 1920 featured promotion for Red Crown Gasoline – whilst this drew criticism at the time, the trend grew exponentially. Bond driving (and often destroying) a top of the range car has become ingrained in over 50 years of films, whilst rarely a modern-day production passes without the glowing Apple logo featuring prominently in at least three inconsequential scenes. You can draw a similarly lineage of film and TV merchandising – all the way back to Mickey Mouse’s Steamboat Willie (1928). Whisky merchandising similarly is far from new – and recent examples have brought real brand powerhouses together.
Diageo’s Game of Thrones whisky series demonstrates the reach and power of TV merchandising commodification. GoT’s award hauls at the Emmy’s (47 so far) place it as the second most successful TV series of all time – behind the venerable Saturday Night Live (though it’ll be going some in my book to be viewed as a greater TV show than The Wire – history might tell). The spinoffs and mechandising created from Thrones are almost endless – a $30,000 life-sized replica of the Iron Throne, Hand of the King wax sealing kits, and my personal favourite for sheer weirdness – The Night’s Watch Boyfriend Pillow – essentially a uniformed pillow with a single attached arm for bed time snuggling with your favourite imaginary character. Your very own bedtime Samwell. Surreal.
The combined powers of Diageo with HBO present us with a series of eight whiskies ‘inspired’ by seven of the world’s main ‘houses’ and the unwanted dregs in the form of the Night’s Watch. It’s ultimately unimaginative, but perfectly pitched – offering something that has cross-cutting appeal for both GoT and whisky fans – and, perhaps notably a third faction – whisky commodifiers. Folk uninterested in either Westeros, Diageo’s better-known distilleries, but extremely eager to snaffle everything up that might be limited (in reality these aren’t) that they can ultimately profit from. But, as we’ll dissect in more detail tomorrow, it turns out that the GoT whiskies have produced something of a watershed for auction flipping – hundreds of bottles sold for near enough their RRP – little profit to be hand.
Folks should have seen this coming a mile off - these bottlings have not been produced for pure whisky enthusiasts – they’ve been produced for GoT enthusiasts and for whisky folks who happen to be fans of GoT. As such, their RRP pricing is relatively reasonable and accessible. Whilst the commodifiers might have seen it differently, in essence, this series of bottlings have been designed to have broad appeal. Fingers have got burnt. And I’ve enjoyed a good laugh along the way. Whisky is for drinking.
Over the next two days, The Dramble will be reviewing all eight of the Game of Thrones whiskies. We’ve already had a wee taste of Westeros in the form of Johnnie Walker White Walker - an expression which generated substantial interest from GoT fans, but ultimately was totally insipid beyond its heat sensitive labelling. Will any of these single malt-based expressions prove more eventful? It’s worth noting that poured alongside each other, every single one of these bottlings looks exactly the same hue – I’ll let you decide the significance of that.
With thanks to Billy Abbot (@cowfish) for the samples.
Bottle Name: Oban Bay Reserve The Night’s Watch
ABV: 43% Distillery: Oban Region: Highlands
The Oban Bay Reserve is one of ‘chase’ bottle of the series of Game of Thrones whisky tie-ins. It sold out in a flash at the big retailers. Though like the entire series, hold onto your horses - winter will be coming once again - thousands upon thousands of new bottlings are on the horizon. Releases are few and far between from the West Coast based distillery, and it’s popularity, particularly in the US is high. The bottling looks rather stark (pun intended) compared to the other seven releases – black smoked glass, certainly fitting for the Night’s Watch - though presented with a rather tacky plastic label.
Bay Reserve is a newly formed expression rather than a rebottling of an existing one ala Cardhu Gold Reserve and Royal Lochnagar 12 year old. Bottled at 43% ABV, there’s a wealth of Night’s Watch related ‘stuff’ over the label, but little to nothing about the makeup of the whisky itself.
Nose: Pleasantly fruit-forward with orange peels, raspberries, macerated cherries and strawberry yoghurt (of the ‘strawberry aldehyde’ artificially flavoured variety). Running throughout is a vein of grassiness, dried, demi-sweet, slightly mossy and with some herbal mustiness. Not quite barnyard, but heading in that direction. Chalkiness sits in the background alongside machine oils and liquid paraffin. A slight reduction opens up the farmyard side fully with haylofts and a lactic edge of fried egg whites. There’s also some sweet pastries – breakfast waffles with honey drizzle.
Taste: The arrival feels slightly thin, but at the same time it has a waxen quality to it which coats the mouth nicely. Malts are up first – golden and gentle toasted. Then, a more darker fruit complement – blackberries and blackcurrants with cocoa powder and peppy spicing – cloves and cinnamon. There’s not much development here, but what there is seems spice focussed with increased clove and cinnamon intensity and pepper starting to creep in alongside a fair amount of dryness. I strangely preferred this with a few drops of water – whilst the arrival was inarguably thin at that point, the balance seemed much improved with tart oranges peels and lemon balm sitting nicely with the dark reduced berry flavours.
Finish: Medium in length – cloves, cinnamon, pepper and drying oak.
Oban Bay Reserve possesses a genuinely interesting nose, but the palate fails to live up to these initial expectations offering little complexity or development. It’s all completely fine, but to my mind doesn’t offer anything radically different to the cheaper travel retail Little Bay, nor achieve the general level of balanced quality offered by the standard 14 year old. In whisky terms, I rather feel there’s a trick missed here – a small parcel of ex-sherry casks adds some fruitiness, but I’d have been much more interested in an expression which upped the smoke levels of the standard Oban profile – here they’re all but unperceivable. But, what do I know – this will surely continue to sell like one of Hot Pie’s hot pies.
Bottle Name: Cardhu Gold Reserve House Targaryen
ABV: 40% Distillery: Cardhu Region: Speyside
To date, I’ve found Cardhu to be a very consistent whisky. I visited the distillery last year and tasted a raft of different expressions – they all by and large tasted exactly the same. Cardhu started its life as many whiskies have done so – as a blending component – it’s been a key Highland component of Johnnie Walker for many decades. DCL (forerunners of Diageo) chose the distillery to be one of their earliest forays into single malt production – a 12 year old released in 1981 with the name ‘Cardhu’ rather than the previously used ‘Carlow’. It’s success quickly overtook the capacity of the distillery resulting in DCL producing a ‘vatted malt’ from a range of its distilleries. Confusion with both customers and within the industry ensued and the bottling was dropped and vatted malt abandoned as a official labelling term.
Cardhu Gold Reserve House Targaryen is simply a relabelled version of the commonly available Cardhu Gold Reserve. You’ll have to pay substantially more for the GoT themed bottle than for the normal edition (despite them being the same liquid) - £48.64 from Master of Malt vs. £34.95 for the standard edition. Note how MoM suggests ‘only 1 per customer’ in a effort to reinforce the belief that this bottle is some way highly limited. Little can be gleaned about the make-up of the whisky, save for the use of ‘handpicked toasted casks’ – in other words – casks.
Nose: Fresh orchard fruits (apples and pears) alongside candied versions thereof – Jolly Rancher apple and pear drops – quite saccharine and artificial. A big dose of vanilla runs throughout joined by gentle honey and spongecake. In the background, icing sugar, grassiness and fresh cotton sheets.
Taste: Somewhat thin (as expected) with pear cider sitting with bitter steeped tea. Vanilla and toffee provide a generic Speyside character with sappy oak pushing through consistently throughout the development. Dried cereals reinforce a grainy youth and sit with hedgerow leafiness, copper coins and burnt bitter caramel.
Finish: Short with tannic tea and charred oak.
Cardhu Gold Reserve House Targaryen is about as exciting as much of Cardhu’s single output – I.E. not very. It’s perfectly satisfactory, but offers nothing more than total generic predictability. It’s the sort of single malt that I’d have no qualms in drowning with ginger beer and ice. All well and good at £35 – a lot less so at £48.
A welcome bottling from Clynelish, which to my mind is a whisky drinkers whisky. There’s not all that many official (affordable) OB’s released from this distillery – the 14 year old remains the only consistent bottle produced by the distillery. This GoT edition is a new composition rather than a rebottling and comes delivered with the highest ABV of the series – it’s also the same price as the uneventful Cardhu. Showing as out of stock in many of the bigger outlets, but have no fear, a second (massive) release of bottles is on its way. If you want one, just have an ounce of patience.
Nose: Candle wax and coconut fat gives immediate presence. Unripe apples, tinned pineapples and foam bananas are joined by a slight fizz of homemade lemonade, before dusty oak, sugar syrup and granite-like minerality emerge. Reduction brings out some malty characteristics alongside orange and lemon zest.
Taste: Quite textural and weighty on arrival, but also somewhat hostile. Intense and biting alcoholic pepper slides into maltiness, honey and limestone before fruitiness (peaches and gooseberries) pushes though – though on a much lower level than the nose offered. Herbalness and camomile-tinged perfume expresses in the back palate alongside smooth waxes and citrus balms. Water is, to my mind, needed here – the arrival is less aggressive and there are additional tinned, juicy fruits and chalkiness.
Finish: Medium in length with salt and pepper seasoning, clay and putty.
Clynelish Reserve House Tyrell is one of the few bottles in this series which offers something identifiably different from the distillery’s standard entry expression. The Clynelish waxy texture is present and correct and is joined by a large vein of coastal character which provides both distinction and some intrigue. To my mind it’s a shame that this delivers in such a raw fashion (no doubt a factor of age), however, there’s still a good amount to like here. I’d see this as a good alternative to the 14 year old in terms of being a textural daily drinker.
Bottle Name: Talisker Select Reserve House Greyjoy
ABV: 45.8% Distillery: Talisker Region: Islands
‘Select’ *and* ‘Reserve’ in a single bottle title? The Diageo marketing team clearly took a long lunch that day. However, despite the uninspiring name, this is a new composition from the series and not drawn from Talisker’s existing line-up of bottlings. The pairing of the distillery with the worshippers of the Drowned God feels quite a natural match, but there’s been a few standout OB Talisker’s (especially last year’s 8 year old Special Edition), so this’ll be going some in my book to stand out.
Clocking in at the standard 45.8% ABV bottling strength, this expression will set you back a shy under £50 from Master of Malt, which is broadly in line with several of the Talisker non age-statement range releases (Port Ruighe, Distillery’s Edition), but about 25% more than Skye or Storm.
Nose: Smoked paprika is immediate – sweet and savoury and joined by plenty of brine and pepper. There’s a meatiness underlying – burnt ends and Italian sausage (fennel and basil) alongside beef joint and reduced gravy. Smoke is part tarry, part ashy with additional sweetness from stewed hedgerow berries. The addition of water adds some burnt toffee, gentle rubberiness and further wafting ash. A rather hospitable and inviting nose.
Taste: Somewhat middle of the road, without either raw power or the sweet welcomeness of the nose – but, oily none the less. Orange peels and charred cask ends sit with brine, pepper and burnt meats. Ashiness, iodine and a good dollop of liquid liquorice are joined by fresh leather and undefined red berry sweetness. Dilution is ill advised, this thins instantly, offering washed out flavours with little definition – 45.8% is where it’s at.
Finish: Medium to long with burnt wood and pan sugars reinforced by salinity and pepperiness.
Talisker Select Reserve House Greyjoy possesses a rather agreeable and nose and has plenty of distillery character pepper. But the delivery doesn’t offer the same level of power and finesse as the (cheaper) 10 year old expression. Sure, it’s a different take – but to my mind, it’s rather Talisker-lite. There’s nothing wrong here, it’s a perfectly drinkable malt, but when looking at the price vs. quality (and considering other commonly available Talisker alternatives), this feels like it’s for completists only.