Today on The Dramble we open our account of reviews for independent bottler Claxtons courtesy of a Twitter Tasting event hosted by The Whisky Wire last night. If you’re yet to venture into online tastings, I’d heartily recommend them. They’re a great way to taste new spirits in (digitally) convivial company, as well an opportunity to directly engage with bottlers and producers. What they are not however is a substitute for real analysis and critical thinking.
Samples are both the bane and the saviour of the online reviewer. Whilst some have started websites proclaiming that they’ll never pass comment on anything from a sample bottle, for those of us who don’t work in whisky shops or have an on tap supply, there’s a very real cost to this endeavour. Unless your day job is outlandishly lucrative, it’s simply not practical to buy a whole bottle of whisky to then pour out a single review sample – there’s near 27 whiskies left in that bottle, and if you’re not particularly keen on it, what then?
On the other hand, there’s still the prevalent phenomena of ‘sample hype’ – whereby reviewers are predisposed to avoid passing any critical judgement on goodies they’ve received for fear of their supply of free whisky being cut off. Despite many bottlers and producers realising that honest critique is worth more than press release regurgitation and vain complements, this malaise is widespread. I didn’t have to look far when reviewing the new (genuinely poor) Johnnie Walker White Walker earlier this week to find dozens of acclaim-packed write-ups. Genuine evaluation is derived from an authentic passion for the liquid itself not from industry handouts. It’s the reviewers job to be unbiased, but critical – we’re there to help guide and educate, not to provide free advertising.
Anyhow, back to online tastings. Whilst usually very well organised, and undoubtedly good for brand recognition, they’re far from the most scientific of endeavours. The curse of sample hype is never that far away. I’ve joined many a tasting over the last few years and whilst there are some authentic voices in the mix who are prepared to indicate when they simply don’t like something (and there’s nothing wrong with that at all), there’s sometimes a contingent all too eager to please. “This is the best whisky I’ve ever tried” they’ll say about sample no.1. Until sample no.2 is poured. And so on. Now, I’m not being churlish about this – online tastings are not the right outlet for critical thinking – but at the same time, the producers and bottlers are there not only to raise their visibility, but to also get feedback and to engage with enthusiasts. Constant platitudes might massage the ego, but they provides little useful intelligence – are they picking the right casks? are they setting the right prices? etc All these things can have a little illumination cast on them. But, not if everything is simply “the best eva”.
Last night’s Claxtons tasting was one of the better online events I’ve attended. A good crowd (with some genuine voices) was joined by a diverse selection of high quality liquids and a bottler who was not only present, but eager to engage and discuss. Now we’ve had a chance to decompress and put our thinking hat (not the drinking hat) on, we’ll take a proper look at the five whiskies….
This Claxton’s Teaninich was matured for 19 years in a bourbon hogshead that produced 255 bottles. It’s delivered at 53% ABV and comes with a sticker price of £109.
Nose: Soft and fruit forward with apple pie, grapefruit zest and a pleasant touch of lemony polish. It takes a little time to open in the glass, but rewards patience with buttery puff pastry, digestive biscuits and poached pears. Reduction greatly enhances the orchard fruit elements – they’re now fully ripe, ready to pick. It also adds golden syrupy and bees honey.
Taste: A syrupy mouthfeel with some clinginess to the palate. Stewed apples, split vanilla pods, cream pudding and hazelnuts alongside a good measure of dry white wine. The mid palate delivers some cask influence – prickly white pepper and rather overt oak. There’s development here – the arrival is sweet, but then things move progressively towards spiciness. Water adds juicy tinned fruits, particularly peach and lowers the level of spice and associated cask astringency. This might seem like an improvement – but it’s a double-edged sword as some of the texture and definition is lost in the process.
Finish: Medium to long with dusty and sustained pepper, slight creamy custard and chocolate nibs.
A solid Teaninich that’s big on the fruity flavours, and ably delivers some of the spirits weighty character with a memorable mouthfeel. There’s plenty of cask influence, but that doesn’t necessarily translate directly in to maturity – as such, the oak is quite evident and in places a touch acrid. Dilution smooths the edges, but at the same time reduces the overall impact of the spirit. For me, this is better at 53%, but then it’s not an entirely smooth ride.
22 year old single cask Springbank is something that most whisky enthusiasts are going to get excited about. This example is straight down the line ex-bourbon at 55% ABV. The cost is less exciting alas - £344.99 a pop. Ouch.
Nose: Rather delicate, but with immediate steeliness – chiselled limestone and hewn rocks. These are supported by heavily reduced orchard fruits alongside some Campbeltown funk – diesel, engine oils, pungent smoked unripe tropical fruit and ozone. In the background damp earthiness. The addition of water increases the fruit concentration (especially stone fruits) and reduces the minerality. Given this, it becomes much more expressive.
Taste: Bold and impactful – sherbet covered citrus, plenty of leather and an array of vegetal notes – tomatoes and chilli peppers. Slight salinity and more smoke than the nose – mineral, coal dust, ash and chalkiness. Water adds some real unctuousness to the palate with tangy limes and orange peels sitting alongside chocolate covered Rich Tea biscuits. All-in-all a pretty perfect combination.
Finish: Long, slightly chalky and with plenty of ashy citrus-led smoke.
To my mind, Springbank is currently one of Scotland’s most consistent distilleries – but, it has also become of one of most expensive independently bottled expressions. This Claxton’s 22 year old is no exception – the price is frankly eye-watering – considerably higher than the OB 21 year old (though of course delivered at a higher strength). It’s not all that long ago that Springbank offered an affordable private cask scheme - how times have changed. But, on liquid quality alone this is crackerjack.
Whilst dumpier than a standard sherry butt, a puncheon holds a similar volume of liquid. This Bruichladdich has spent 16 years maturing inside of one. Despite that, it’s maintained a high ABV of 61.2%. 372 bottles have been produced by Claxton’s clocking in at £134.99 a piece.
Nose: Very sherried – but still quite spry – reduced red berries (strawberries and cranberries), stewed plums, orange liqueur and leather bound books. In the background – perfume aromas – rosehips and potpourri alongside a touch of cask char and farmyard. Very expressive and quite heady. The addition of water considerably softens the impact (which you may or may not want to do). It adds golden syrup, honeycomb, hedgerow berries and sappy tree bark.
Taste: Punchy and rich. Toffee and chocolate sauces alongside plenty of ground cinnamon and ginger spicing and a sprinkle of cloves. The mid-palate delivers more fruitiness – pears and orange peels and adds in some charred cask ends, farmyard lactate and pepperiness. Dilution easily tames the arrival, but the underlying power returns with full force in the mid to back palate – still animated, still quite dramatic, but now with some dustiness and chalk.
Finish: Very long and slightly astringent with burnt caramel and over-reduced pan sugars and old tobacco.
Full steam ahead! This high ABV Bruichladdich is rather “take no prisoners”. It’s rather bombastic, but just about manages to maintain some of the natural spirit character behind a wall of sweet and spicy sherry spice. That said, Bruichladdich’s lactic nature can be divisive and there’s plenty of it here – very big sherry, but not necessarily one for all sherry lovers.
Another of Scotlands’ sadly closed grain distilleries in the form of Dumbarton. For many year’s this was used in the Ballantine’s blend and never saw an original distillery bottling. Indies have got you covered though – there’s been over a dozen well-aged expressions bottled in the last 2 years. This Claxton’s bottling is no exception – 32 years in an ex-bourbon barrel and bottled at 57.1% ABV. Only 96 were produced at a cost of £144.99.
Nose: Surprisingly ungrain-like with little overt acetone or glue aromas - instead, rich chocolate, Happy Shopper cola, oaty cereal bars, mahogany, teak oil, marzipan and coconut shavings. The addition of water restores expectations with some nail polish, popcorn and buttered toast. But, you know what – I really rather liked this when it diverged from the norm.
Taste: Evidently well-aged with polished wood panelling, teak oil, creosote, spent coffee grounds and dusty armchairs. Supporting, is a more mainstream selection of grain flavours – toasted cereals, caramel, whole-grain bread and a developing back-palate earthiness. Dilution lessens some of the ages notes, adding in younger flavours of vanilla and coconut – again, I’ll take this at 57.1% please.
Finish: Long and very woody, but just about all in check – chocolate, coffee beans, almonds, and sugar dusted cereals.
Seriously good and reasonably priced well-aged grain – sign me right up. There’s a rich and deep intensity here (especially at full strength) that eschews many of the more obvious aromas and flavours that are associated with the grain category. Colour me impressed.
Never one to pass up the opportunity to review a Ledaig (it’s a firm Dramble favourite). This one has spent 10 years in a refill hogshead before being bottled at 54.3% ABV. 304 bottles were produced at £67.99 – this is showing as sold out on the Claxton’s website – but the company sells to a bunch of worldwide retailers so you might well be able to pick it up elsewhere.
Nose: Typically Ledaig – lobster bisque, buttered scallops, seaweed, lemon drops and light tropicals aromas meet with smoked ham hock, smouldering freshly cut wood, burnt rubber tyres and just a hint of plastic bag. Dilution ups the sweetness levels with a wider selection of fruit (orchard). It also adds some pleasant coastal minerality into the equation.
Taste: The arrival is surprisingly soft (it’s a trap) – chocolate, barley water and tangy orange peels. But then it’s unleashed – a combination of inland and coastal smoke with plenty of seafood throw in for good measure. Powerful dry, wood smoke, peat ridden langoustines and briny water. Reduction is interesting here – neat, there’s quite a bit of prickle (which to my mind suits the impactful spirit style) – taken down a few % things are calmer and more easy to process – juicy tinned fruits and whafting smoke. It’s quite the different experience.
Finish: Long, with salinity, minerality and touches of lemon balm.
Impactful and characterful – this is a relatively mainstream Ledaig, which forgoes some of the rubbery weirdness for precise and balanced coastal flavours. Worth seeking out.