It’s not as easy as you think. It’s not just a case of taking a carefree afternoon stroll through a dunnage, cracking open a selection of casks, sampling, and then 15 drams later slurring “that one”. Selecting casks for bottling requires a broad set of skills – and not all of them are palate based. It’s not just about selecting the right cask – it’s about selecting the right cask at (and for) the right time. Whilst it might seem that whisky is riding on such a crest of a wave that anything half decent is a sure-fire winner – this is far from the case. There are myriad details, which regardless of whether you’re an established independent bottler, or just an individual who wants to own an inordinate number of bottles - that need to be borne in mind before pulling the trigger. Selecting is about consideration and knowledge, not just about personal preferences and moments of overeager liquid romance within warehouses.
Distilleries and brokerages can be quite pernickety about cask samples. On the one hand this is understandable – cask purchasing shouldn’t engender a free-riding situation, where rather than going down your local whisky club to explore the broadness of the spirit, folks just wait for their weekly deliveries with no intentions of ever securing a cask. On the other, when selecting it’s imperative to glean as much information about the liquid as possible before handing over the cash. And again – not just whilst having a ‘moment’ in a warehouse. Liquid straight from the cask is quite a different proposition to when its bottled. Some of the sense of place and time is lost – as an independent, almost entirely - as an individual, perhaps nothing more than a fond memory of ‘that time when’. Romanticism and good business sometimes mix as well as oil and water.
Liquid straight from the cask doesn’t always present an identical profile to when its bottled. It’s often tighter, compressed and still under the watchful influence of the barrel. The process of disgorging and bottling adds both oxygen and allows the spirit to decompress and awaken from its long slumber. If you’re going to appropriately sample for selecting, you’d do well to either conduct this away from the warehouse, or even better, to do so both inside and outside. Repeatedly. Over time. Then there are decisions to be made around bottling strength – and contrary to what the die-hards may have you believe, cask strength isn’t always the optimum way to go. Whilst it does offer the drinker the ability to manipulate the liquid with the dilution which suits them personally, in many cases, enthusiasts just want something which shows off the best characteristics of the spirit ‘as is’. So, when selecting, if you’re not able to do this under circumstances when at least semi-measured reduction is possible, you better have a good grasp of how the particular style of distillate ‘should’ respond to varying amounts of potable water. Gut feeling. But ideally backed up by some experience. And not 15 drams into a afternoon, when at which point you’d be frankly happy with a barrel of well-worn Bucky.
When bottling under an independent label, personal preferences and instinct are important, but not sacrosanct. There needs to be a few reality checks. Long-time Dramble readers will already know that whilst my tastes are extremely broad, my preferences often stray into ‘dirty’ tails-heavy oddities. All well and good, but not particularly useful for selecting expressions for an audience wider than myself. Hats need to be changed. Selections need to be made with the marketplace in mind – is the profile something which a broad swathe of possible customers will actively enjoy? Does it come from a distillery which will turn heads? A sought after vintage year? A desirable cask type? And, can it be sold to customers at a price which makes sense – both for the bottler, and for the end consumers themselves?
This is all considerably more complex when you’re looking at selecting a portfolio of casks – I.E. building up stocks which will not necessarily be bottled immediately. In these cases, canny negotiation over prices, an understanding of the changing marketplace *and* a deep knowledge of how the liquid is likely to mature (in particular cask types) all come into play. And, frankly it can get a bit punty. Buying new make is obviously the most economical method, but frequently, folks don’t want to wait 10, 15, 20 years plus to see a return on their investments. Nevertheless, buying liquid and sitting on it presents risks – what was then, won’t necessarily be now. So ‘outs’ are always required. Can the casks be resold? Can they be vatted together to even out any inconsistencies – or (ideally) to make something greater than the sum of their parts. In many regards selecting single casks one at a time, is far easier than picking out larger parcels of liquid. But with less risk comes less reward – and less scope to be able to offer the right product, at the right time, to the right market.
This brings us on to today’s review trio. Three single casks being released shortly today – all bottled for Whisky Exchange’s comparatively new own independent label. Each are noted as being selected by Founder Sukindher Singh ‘from his extensive stocks’. It should come as no surprise that the dude who has eyes on opening Islay’s tenth (or 11th, assuming that the new/old Port Ellen beats him to the punch) distillery also possesses a stockpile of casks up and down Scotland. Not only does Singh enjoy some of the deepest knowledge found within the industry, he’s also a particularly canny fellow – understanding the ebb and flow of when liquids are ready for bottling, and particularly when liquids are appropriate for bottling from a market point of view. Singh doesn’t want expressions sat on shelves for years because they were mistimed for release. And indeed this rarely happens – he and the TWE team are, in my opinion, some of the best selecta’s out there.
This 13 year old Ledaig has spent its life in a single sherry butt (#900174) before being bottled under The Whisky Exchange’s relatively new namesake independent bottling label. The type of butt is unspecified, but it feels to me to be a high quality (still active) oloroso refill rather than a 1st fill. 622 bottles have been produced at 57.4% ABV and are available at a cost of £94.95 each from The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Immediate tar and bitumen road surfacing, alongside felt roofing and aspects of treated bandages and hospital antiseptic. Brown sugars sit with chocolate cake, topped with lemon peels and shaved zest, whilst ‘greenhouse’ aromas of warmed fruits and leafy vines mingle with damp hay and burnt pan oils. Reduction adds a sense of brightness with crystalline and preserved lemons, cocktail cherries and After Eight mints.
Taste: Voluminous and robust with coal dust, laden ashtrays and dry mentholated smokiness. Chocolate dipped cherries and freshly squeezed lime juice mingle with a selection of orchard and berry fruits before reverting to burnt toffee and Vicks Vaporub. Water adds apple slices and hearth sootiness alongside tree resin, potpourri and increasingly medicinal peat smoke.
Finish: Long with jammy red berries, bituminous smoke, gravel and a minty-fresh last hurrah.
Evocative Ledaig which ably shows off both the distillate and the sherry cask – with neither feeling overpowered. Integrated, layered and responding well to the addition of water. All in all quite delicious and easy to recommend.
It’s worth noting that this not nearly as left-field (meaty/fishing/rubbery etc) as Ledaig can be. Similarly, this particularly bottling offers a more controlled take on peat vs. sherry than other recent expressions – that’s not to say it’s quiet. Far from it. But it’s not a high pitched 1st fill uproar either.
It was not all that long ago that The Whisky Exchange presented us with another 21 year old Glenburgie for Black Friday 2019. That was a vatting, here we’re into single cask territory (#900888) with a 1998 vintage matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead for 21 years. 254 bottles have been produced at an ABV of 55.4%. They’re available via the Whisky Exchange for £120 a pop.
Nose: A sharp and sweet combination of macerated and preserved fruits – pears (and Poire William), balled melon, candied lemon peels and a swig of pineapple juice. Running throughout, a combination of wood polish and brassiness – alongside barley water and lemon drizzled sugared pancakes. Dilution reveals additional fruitiness with peach melba, pineapple upside-down cake and a vein of biscuity champagne yeast.
Taste: Instant sweetness. And instant bright fruits. Fresh, tinned, jellied and compiled into a fresh salad – pear, peach, apricot and pineapple with lemon drops. The mid-palate again expresses polished oakiness, whilst white chocolate and creamy anglaise sit with barley water and a scattering of dried floral petals. The addition of water amps up the sweetness further – gummies, hard candies upfront and then an interesting nettle and steeped tea combination in the back palate.
Finish: Medium to long in length with souring tinned fruits, expanding pepperiness and restrained oak. Noticeably shorter in length when diluted.
Fruit-bomb Glenburgie – expressive, defined and with the cask influence well in check. This possesses a few additional nuances under the hood, particularly when a few drops of water added – just a shame that the effect on the finish was a reduction in length, but that’s starting to be nit-picky.
A sherry finished Laphroaig which will surely fly off the shelves. Distilled in 1998 and presumably matured in ex-bourbon until 2010, when the liquid was re-racked into a sherry hogshead for nine years of additional maturation. That’s not messing around. 322 bottles were extracted from cask #117. They’re offered at 54.4% ABV and at £399 each from The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Highly communicative and continually expanding in breadth once in the glass. Balsamic-infused chocolate is poured over reduced berries – raspberry, blackberry – and plums, whilst brisket, roasted ham and meat jus are joined by fireplace embers, burnt parchment paper and swipe of medicinal cleaner and roofing tar. Brown sugar provides additional sweetness, whilst fruit-packed cake epitomises a sense of richness which runs through. Dilution reinforces meatiness with a herb-crusted beef joint, alongside dusty cellars, bund cloth and freshly tanned leather aprons.
Taste: Highly welcoming on the arrival with anise-spiced fruit compote (blackcurrants, cherries and raspberries) and orange liqueurs. Boot polish and coal dust morph into floor cleaner and iodine, before being joined by chocolate sponge, salted caramel and muscovado sugar. The back-palate offers gentle pepperiness alongside freshening mint leaf. The addition of water presents a greater fruit focus with a combination of orchard and stone fruits served alongside balsamic, mineral dust and dry earthiness.
Finish: Medium to long with moist soils and cellars sitting with TCP, jammy fruits, rosehips and mintiness.
A lesson in judgment. Perfectly aged spirit combined with two excellent casks – and a finishing length which is right on the money. It’s not all that common to find a Laphroaig where the underlying fruitiness of the distillate is both given room to breathe, as well as being actively enhanced by the transformative effects of re-racking. But that’s what we have here. Elegant, nuanced, interesting and above all delicious. The big score is well deserved.