Hollow tradition

Posted 06 October 2023 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Hollow tradition

If I tear you open wide, take a look inside
Are you pretty?
Can I get inside your mind, see what I can find?
Are you pretty?
So just take off that disguise, everyone knows that you're only
Pretty on the outside

In an eldritch sense the second whisky loch already exists. It has been purposefully strewn across the globe and now finds its constituent parts detained in storage units, household cupboards, display shelves and the occasional unedifying whisky ‘shrine’. The propensity to hoard bottles is older than I am – however as we head towards peak levels of stockpiling absurdity, the repercussions of whiskies increasingly being viewed as ‘unopenable’ is a development that in years to come, producers may well come to regret being active proponents of.

For a time now we’ve been in a world of ‘buy before you try’ – and whisky festivals provide a perfect environment for people to sample what they’ve already stashed away for whichever apocalypse we all end up facing. Zombies please – I’ve been ready for years. However, there’s a world of difference between an older, near impossible to find gem and what can only be described as tasty drinking whisky. There are reasons to secrete the former. There are very few reasons not to drink the latter. But nevertheless, I spent a good portion of this past weekend pouring tasty drinking whisky (if I do say so myself) to people who already owned those very same bottles. And the more I poured and chatted over those three days, the more folks I found who were genuinely fearful at the thought of ever opening what I just poured for them.

But, you shouldn’t care though Matt…they’ve already bought your bottles. Surely that’s job done?

Not to my mind.

Allow me to elucidate…

Every time a distillery goes so balls deep on the ‘story’ that the actual whisky itself is totally subsumed beneath it, a little piece of me dies.

A distillery spending its entire marketing real estate (and therefore the associated short consumer attention span) talking about the wood used to make the box as opposed to the wood utilised to shape the whisky is telling consumers that the packaging story *is* the whisky. A distillery throwing down a very large age statement from a time when craft, traditions and likely inputs were meaningfully different, but instead choosing to devote its moment in the spotlight on the use of industrial whitewash is telling the consumer that deep-rooted legacies and expertise are now second tier attributes. You want a piece of heritage? It’s available for £4,500….or from Homebase for only £5 per pot.

There’s a real danger here. If the promotion of whisky gets to a point where the actual whisky itself isn’t what’s really being promoted, we’ve lost the single most important thing about it – its remarkable qualities as a drink. If the quality and the craft behind the creation of the brown liquid contained inside of the bottle is of less note than the packaging and the stories that envelop it, we’re suggesting that the exterior trumps the interior. To my mind that akin to a Durian fruit – interesting to look at, but pretty stinky should one dare to look inside.

Stories are whisky. The retelling of a tale over a shared dram. The amusing “time when…” which always lightens the mood when visiting a distillery. The preservation and reciting of histories both ancient and new which provide a bedrock for whisky no matter the generation. But at the same time, whisky cannot bang the heritage drum whilst the piper goes off for a decade long prog rock noodle. If tradition, craft and quality are fundamental, then let them be fundamental. By all means produce the fancy box, employ the artist, bring in the celeb chef, tell the tales as tall as you like…but don’t omit giving due focus to what’s actually inside of the bottle. It deserves more than a sentence. Indeed, it *needs* more than a sentence.

As much as I have no innate problems with ‘whisky through the medium of interpretive dance’ – I do find myself increasingly vexed that the industry seems unable to balance its creative propensities with the need to ensure its core, beating heart message is still heard loud and clear. It’s a message that is generations old – whisky is crafted by skilled and passionate people who deeply care about what’s inside of your bottles and try, day and night to create tasty things for you. In short – it’s about quality. And yet if we combine the growing tendency of consumers not to open their bottles, with industry promotion that actively encourages them never to do so (the packaging is the story and the price won’t tempt you to pop the cork either) we’re left with a worrying outlook for the whisky of the future.

Over the last few years this approach has proved to be a roaring success (though I do wonder if the difficult economic conditions now facing many producers ever causes pause for thought or at least a glance into the rear view mirror). Folks have eagerly bought bottles based on perceived and inferred desirabilities that exist outside the bubble of quality alone. These bottles are stashed away – in the second whisky loch ‘home cupboard edition’. Producers know this only too well. And if that’s the direction of travel, then why bother creating anything that possesses true character and quality? It’s only going to sit unopened anyway. 

Years ago distillers had to think hard about what to do with non-conforming stock – and some of the most interesting creations I’ve tried (Rare Malts anyone?) have stemmed from this in one way or another. But now it’s dead easy…just like anything else you can roll in the packaging team.

Taken to its natural zenith (which it does seem the industry has every intention of doing) - what is left to inspire future generations into actually enjoying the contents of their bottles - some of which have gestated for a significant portion of someone's lifetime? Once they’ve cleaned out their local pub and supermarket are we expecting them to spend their time acquiring inefficacious ornaments that are only really beautiful on the outside? I’m far from convinced.

Stories can inspire. But so too can (and should) the actual drink inside of the bottle, else all we're left with is hollow tradition.

Audrey Hepburn perhaps said it best: “Make-up can only make you look pretty on the outside but it doesn't help if you're ugly on the inside. Unless you eat the make-up”

……………………

Today’s reviews all stand pretty starkly opposed to the trends and tendancies outlined in the pre-Dramble above. Indeed Watt Whisky have offered some recent amusement by not only abandoning their gift box packaging, but also by providing everyone with some helpful uses for their old cartons which include notably mobid gravestones and inherently biodegradable coffins. My cat is now giving me *the look* as I measure up her future Watt Whisky interment.

The pile of reviews below are taken from two separate Watt Whisky releases and have been smashed together into a big Dramble catchup. As such, whilst some bottles are still readily available, others you might need to go hunting for.


The Dramble reviews Watt Whisky North British 1991 32 Year old

Bottle Name: North British 1991

ABV: 50.1%
Distillery: North British
Bottler: Watt Whisky
Region: Lowlands Age: 31
Glass Weight: 489g

Ever since bottling my own well-aged North British last month, I’m finding myself hunting down as many similarly aged examples to compare and contrast with as I can get my hands on. Each one I’ve sampled of late has ticked boxes in terms of both approachability and drinkability. And on occasion that’s exactly what’s called for. Not every whisky experience needs to be either intricate or ethereal – sometimes there’s simple pleasures to be found in a dram being nothing more or less than an agreeable drinking experience.

Watt Whisky’s North British hails from a 1991 barrel left to mature for 32 years before being bottled at 50.1% ABV. 102 bottles were produced and at least one is still available via The Whisky Exchange for £104.

Nose: Immediate notes of mature grain – varnished tables, walnut and sesame oil – alongside buttered toast, cinema popcorn and crackerbread. Everything is underpinned by a strong vein of cream toffee, desiccated coconut and delicately spiced oakiness. The addition of water offers banana bread, shortbread and a creamy sense of nougat.

Taste: Wholesome. Crushed walnuts and flax oil are joined by burnt brioche, smooth toffee and asides of chocolate. The development reveals vanilla crème patisserie together with crystalised oranges, apple sauce and powdered ginger. Reduction presents sugared cereals alongside coffee and walnut cake.

Finish: Medium in length with supple oak, coconut and tingly white pepper.

Nearly all the inherent ‘gluiness’ has dropped out of this super solid three decade+ grain. Whilst increasingly we’re seeing grain whiskies stuffed into all sorts of finishing casks to add label appeal, there’s still something to be said about a ‘naked’ barrel and this Watt Whisky North British effortlessly says it.

Score: 86/100

The Dramble reviews Watt Whisky A Tale of Two Cities (and a wee Toon)

Bottle Name: A Tale of Two Cities (and a wee Toon)

ABV: 57.1%
Bottler: Watt Whisky
Age: 5
Glass Weight: 489g

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Continuing on the North British vibe, but merging in malt and wrapping the resulting intriguing blend up in a Dickensesque double-sider we have Watt Whisky’s 5 year old Blended Scotch Whisky by-lined ‘A Tale of Two Cities (and a wee Toon).

The Watt’s first in-house created amalgamation contains malt from both a Campbeltown and a Glasgow distillery (at 28.5% each according to Neil over on whiskyreviews.net) with the remaining 43% sourced from Wheatfield Road in Edinburgh. Fun stuff. 501 bottles were produced at 57.1% ABV. The original price was £48, though I believe you’ll need to look outside the UK to secure a bottle now.

Nose: Out of the bottle - crystalline lemon and chiselled minerality. This fades and gives way to toffee cups, sultanas and honey bread alongside choux pastry and a scattering of breakfast cereals. Dilution reveals vanillins and raisins together with Rich Tea biscuits and a edge of sea breeze.

Taste: This drinks exceptionally well for the chosen ABV – with the malt firmly in charge of the grain. Powered lemony gravel sits with oven-baked buns, sultanas and preserved lemons. Lamp oil and mineral fizzing oak gives way to tart cases, powered ginger and a white wine sharpness. The addition of water is a bad idea here – the whisky quickly loses cohesion, with the grain elements bringing grist and cereal strongly to the fore.

Finish: Medium with pastries and lemons – still quite mineralistic and honed.

Watt Whisky’s first blend is as fun as it sounds. Though perhaps lacking in layers from the convergence of the grain and malt (I’m personally missing a base note to juxtaposition against the sweetness and coastal qualities) – the profile works and provides more than enough interest to suggest that Mark and Kate should continue their unification of Campbeltown malts with other ‘stuff’. I for one would be very interested to see what it’s possible for them to conjure up.

Score: 85/100

The Dramble reviews Campbeltown Blended Malt Scotch Whisky 2014

Bottle Name: Campbeltown Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

ABV: 56.8%
Bottler: Watt Whisky
Age: 9
Glass Weight: 489g

Back in 2021 Watt Whisky released a 16 year old Clarendon Estate Jamaican rum. Post disgorging they’ve put that rum cask to further use in the maturation on their 9 year old Campbeltown Blended Malt Scotch Whisky. 20 months of finishing in a refill rum cask has resulted in 272 bottles at 56.8% ABV.

Nose: Rum! Ethyl butrate from the get-go – overripe tropical fruits, foam bananas, brandy snaps and a good scattering of golden sugars. Then, the Campbeltown elements take centre stage – semi-mechanised aromas of machine parts, BBQ briquettes sit with caramel wafers and tobacco leaves. Water here adds a ‘green’ note to the fruit whilst also offering waffles and a notably increased perception of that tobacco.

Taste: Rum! Pineapple, banana and high ester diesel, oily rags and exhaust fumes. Tingly pepper sits alongside toffee whilst felt roofing maintains the funk alongside notes of malty loaves. Dilution expresses more of the original cask and spirit with notes of funky workshop alongside slight salinity and golden, toasted cereals.

Finish: Rum! The theme runs right through to the end. Quite long and all on fading tropical fruits, dunder pits and residual cask char.

I’m not normally a fan of heavy finishing casks – but I’ll make an exception here. The combination of Campbeltown’s characterful spirit with Clarendon’s pot and column setup is a matchup of big hitting flavours that wouldn’t normally work in other more delicate arrangements. But here, the robustness of the underlying spirit (and initial maturation) has produced a union where each rowdy component somehow sings in bizarre harmony. I admire its sheer gutsiness….but I’m already a fan of punchy, high ester rum weirdness. Your mileage for this whisky will almost certainly come down to how much of a fan you are. It’s undeniably rum cask forward – and you’ll need to love the inherent character of that cask to love this whisky.

Score: 86/100

The Dramble reviews Watt Whisky Dalmunach 2016 6 year old

Bottle Name: Dalmunach 2016

ABV: 57.1%
Distillery: Dalmunach
Bottler: Watt Whisky
Region: Speyside Age: 6
Glass Weight: 489g

Watt Whisky’s first foray over to Dalmunach sees a 22 month Amontillado sherry butt finish employed. Colour me intrigued. 456 bottles were produced at 57.1% ABV – you’ll still find these at The Whisky Exchange for £61.75.

Nose: Opening on cherries, berries and strudel, before expressing flor sherry nuttiness through cashews, hazelnuts and leafy tobacco. Werther’s Originals form a backbone whilst berry pavlova, and vanilla buttercream provide support. Simple and likeable. Reduction offers gingerbread and darker cherry notes alongside a yoghurt/fool creaminess.

Taste: Hedgerow berries and strawberry balsamic sit with cherry cordial, and blackberry coulis (providing some fruity oiliness). Nougat and meringue are joined by vinous qualities which again include tobacco leaf. Water here results in substantial dryness. I wouldn’t. It does however reveal something of the original maturation cask – toffee, vanilla and light notes of char.

Finish. Ah. Lost me now. Quite tight and grippy and all on drying oak and sherry wine tannins.

I know others will enjoy the dry, oak-filled sherry finish of this Dalmunach, but for my palate there’s  just too much cask bite at the end of an otherwise very pleasant Amontillado finish.

Score: 81/100

The Dramble reviews Watt Whisky Glenlossie 2013 10 year old

Bottle Name: Glenlossie 2013

ABV: 56.4%
Distillery: Glenlossie
Bottler: Watt Whisky
Region: Speyside Age: 10
Glass Weight: 489g

Speyside stalwart Glenlossie is often a very safe pick for an indy bottler nowadays. At one point the spirit was infrequently seen on the cask market, now I’d consider it a regular hallmark of natural distillate weight and crisp, refreshing floralness. Watt Whisky’s 264 bottle release has been matured in a hogshead for 10 years before being presented at 56.4% ABV. Whisky Exchange have again got you covered on this one - £61.75 a bottle.

Nose: Crunchie Bars, soft toffee and a selection of dried grasses – reed and flax – sit with apricot fool, whipped cream and ethyl ester pear drops. The addition of water moves things into fresh and ripe orchard fruits with sliced pears and apples together with clear honey and gingerbread men.

Taste: Pear is now right to the fore – poached in apple juices. Pepperiness builds in the development alongside ginger – it is tempered by split vanilla, bourbon biscuits and honey that has been imbued with lemon juice. Dilution expresses a rather more cereal-centric whisky with branflakes and Alpen sitting with souring orchard fruits.

Finish: Medium and favouring biscuits and fading, sweet Comice pear.

Spot on expectations – crisp, refreshing and well-judged. Buy a bottle – save it for next Spring.

Score: 85/100

The Dramble reviews Glen Elgin 2012 11 year old

Bottle Name: Glen Elgin 2012

ABV: 60.9%%
Distillery: Glen Elgin
Bottler: Watt Whisky
Region: Speyside Age: 11
Glass Weight: 489g

A long-time Dramble favourite. Glen Elgin is starting to see early signs of the traction that its spirit surely deserves. Sought after for blending and equally at home when presented naturally - where its long fermentation, high ester fruity character more often than not shines brightly.

A rather healthy ABV of 60.9% implies a somewhat quiet maturation of this single hogshead release of 296 bottles. Still available from The Whisky Exchange for £68.95.

Nose: Lemonade and lemon curd join supple toffee and praline chocolates whilst roasted hazelnuts sit with Rich Tea biscuits and touches of hay. Reduction introduces floral veins with Chablis wine, sultana bread and a move from Rich Tea toward digestives.

Taste: As expected…and hoped for. Crystalline lemons and creamy butter toffee sit with soft-peaked meringues and hot cross buns, whilst hazelnut is sacrificed for a more dried fruit profile which also incorporates shaved chocolate. Water here really pushes forward the creamy toffee character whilst also revealing press flowers and lingering grassiness.

Finish: Medium to long. White pepper and metholated oak expressed from the cask are joined by a sustained orchard/citrus linger.

I always have time for this profile and Watt Whisky’s latest offering from Glen Elgin doesn’t disappoint. Despite the high natural strength, this drinks excellently ‘as is’. Nevertheless, there’s obviously ample scope for dilution here – and this single cask release can certainly take plenty of it – rewarding the dilutor with oodles of lovely creamy toffee.

Score: 87/100

The Dramble reviews Watt Whisky A Speyside Distillery 2009 13 year old.

Bottle Name: A Speyside Distillery 2009

ABV: 56.1%
Distillery: Undisclosed Speyside
Bottler: Watt Whisky
Region: Speyside Age: 13
Glass Weight: 489g

Perhaps one of the most prized distilleries for blending in terms of its distillate weight being used to add base notes to a composition – this mystery Speyside release  is described as “rich and meaty” by Watt Whisky. That should be as much of a hint as you need to work it out. 248 bottles were disgorged from a single hogshead before being bottled at 56.1% ABV.

Nose: Touches of honey roasted ham and fermenting beer are incorporated alongside lemongrass, polished oak and tobacco. Touches of engine grease sit together roasted pine nuts and vanilla cream filled tart cases. The addition of water offers oatcakes alongside lemon-flavoured travel sweets.

Taste: Chamois leather, shoe polish and a swipe of axle grease on the arrival, before an expression of orange marmalade, sour lemons and baked pastry. Oakiness is supple, but in check and sits alongside a glug of sunflower oil. Dilution pushes orchard fruits and zesty lemon to the fore, but at the expense of some of the overall definition and much of the textural character on offer. Better at 56.1%.

Finish: Medium to long. Still rather fatty and with caramel alongside dusty, lightly spiced oakiness.

Another distillate that I naturally favour. Here the weight of the spirit can be felt from nose through to finish, whilst the cask helps to express some of the lighter top notes of vibrant fruit that sill lurk beneath a pool of greases and fats. Characterful and weighty.

Score: 85/100

The Dramble reviews Watt Whisky A Highland Distillery 2011 12 year old

Bottle Name: A Highland Distillery 2011

ABV: 58.9%
Distillery: Undisclosed Highlands
Bottler: Watt Whisky
Region: Highlands Age: 12
Glass Weight: 489g

I have far fewer (read: none) hints to provide you with on this incognito Highland release – we’ll just have to take it as it comes. 252 bottles at 58.9% ABV and matured in a barrel for 12 years. And still available over on The Whisky Exchange for £74.95.

Nose: Quite resinous with sap and cold whipped cream alongside Battenburg cake, salted toffee and zesty orange. In the background – granite, wet cloth and wire wool. Sweetly mineralistic. A few drops of water presents royal icing together with shingle and moist fabrics.

Taste: A big arrival driven by a high ABV. Zingy orange sherbet and chiselled minerality from slate and shale gives way to salted toffee, sack cloth, Horlicks and Hobnob biscuits. Reduction offers briny oil and orange gel together with notes of silt-packed clay.

Finish: Long with mentholated oakiness and lasting minerality.

Animal, vegetable, mineral? Certainly the latter here with plenty of sharp, honed, rocky qualities very well-aligned to a sweeter, maltier core. Fans of geologically-focussed whiskies should certainly seek this one out.

Score: 87/100

The Dramble reviews Watt Whisky Peated Highland 2000 22 year old

Bottle Name: Peated Highland 2000

ABV: 54%
Distillery: Undisclosed Highlands
Bottler: Watt Whisky
Region: Highlands Age: 22
Glass Weight: 489g

I’ve seen and tasted a fair few ‘peated highlands’ from cask lists which have been circulating over the past 12 months. A fair number have presented to me as akin to undisclosed Ben Nevis. Whether this Watt Whisky mystery Highland is from Fort William or not doesn’t really matter – peated highland malts usually tick many of my boxes no matter their origin.

This one was a release of 294 bottles which had been matured in a single sherry hogshead for 22 years before being bottle at my favourite ABV of 54%. You’ll still find a few of these knocking around in Europe – though it looks like you’ll be paying a bit of a premium for one.

Nose: Wet casks sitting in earthy dunnages. Damp, mossy peat smoke. Tea chests, cigar wrappers, fig rolls and plump raisins. Chocolate bon bons, moist earth, clay and putty. A superb meeting of sherried mellowness with alluvialness. The addition of water reduces the perceptible moisture levels, favouring cherry cordial and wispy, vegetal smoke.

Taste: Happy place now. Polish, earthy smoke and sherried fruits. Lava rocks, brittle bitumen and coal scuttles join apple sauce, well-aged and polished oakiness and dusty library shelves. The development reinforces the ‘wetness’ with earth, waterlogged fallen trees and asides of eucalyptus. Dilution pushes the sweetness up a notch with walnut skins, scattered berries and lacquered oak panelling.

Finish: Long with dry, old, lingering smoke, pine needles and puffs of menthol.

Hard to fault. Expertly matured whisky that retains a real elemental quality and as a result presents with both breadth and depth. A meeting of characters that were separated at birth but now get right on together at home with one another. I must hunt out a bottle. Oh Mark. Oh Kate….

Score: 90/100

The Dramble reviews Watt Whisky Caol Ila 2013 9 year old

Bottle Name: Caol Ila 2013

ABV: 59.6%
Distillery: Caol Ila
Bottler: Watt Whisky
Region: Islay Age: 9
Glass Weight: 489g

Ending today’s review session with ol’ reliable. 2013 9 year old Caol Ila drawn from a hogsheads and bottled at 59.6% ABV. 306 bottles were produced – looks like you’ll need to scour Europe for one of these now – expect to pay around 90 Euros.

Nose: Lemon, brine, medicinal peak smoke and sweet pastry notes of tart cases, pancakes and griddled waffles. Lightly mineral with rocky beaches and ably supported by lemon gel and vanilla cream. Reduction presents seaweed, clay, cold cream and yoghurt.

Taste: More scalpel sharp than the nose. Ashy smoke, surface cleaner and lemon-tinged antiseptic sit with beach sands and loams, pebbles and seashells. Golden cereals and crumbled biscuits are livened with a squeeze of lemon. Water reveals greases, oils and fats, but retains much of the shape and character of the whisky in terms of its trinity of medicinal smoke, lemon and rockiness.

Finish: Bonkers long. Near endless medicinalness. I was still discerning this 10 minutes after putting my pen down. Sweet and sour lemon tinctures along for the ride.

I’d have reduced this down to 54% to express its wonderful, natural fattiness. However, in doing so I’d have diminished its insanely long finish which really does deserve to be experienced as it comes. Get a bottle – try it at cask strength, try it at 54% - excellence no matter your preference (It’s Caol Ila, so none of us should be in anyway surprised by this).

Score: 87/100

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