Now as much an annual manifestation as last week’s Black Friday Edition – The Whisky Exchange’s A Fine Christmas Malt series of festive releases has the challenging task of continually reaffirming what a Christmas whisky is meant to be. There are altogether far too many whiskies that are described as “tasting like Christmas” (regardless of the time of year) – by which of course we mean offering notes of: overdone carrots, rubbish movies, sky high electricity bills, fraught family dynamics and a rapidly draining bank account.
Christmas whiskies are usually selected because of their abundance of rich sherry flavours and the darkest hue that’s possible without falling into the trap that is Beinn Dubh. Sherry has held a long-standing relationship with Christmas – nowadays in terms of the mother-in-law having her annual glass from the dusty bottle that has sat languishing for the other 364 days of the year. But whisky, similarly to a holiday itself, offers a wide range of possible emotions. And in my view, limiting yourself solely to your pile of monster sherrybombs (which, let’s be honest, if that’s your jam - you’ve been all over throughout the year anyhow) just because “it’s Christmas” is about as wise as spending the holiday on the Internet looking at how much fun everyone else is seemingly having.
The potential for mixing your drinks is exceptionally high during December – Advent calendars, boozy baubles, countless top 10 Christmas tipples covering every fermentable known to humankind. And as such, whilst I’m not here to suggest that a conglomeration of all of these is in any way a good idea (unless you wanted to ask Santa for a stomach pump), I do firmly believe that the broadness and versatility of whisky during a celebration can shine much wider than simply picking out the darkest liquid you can find. Sometimes, shunning these bombastically sherried whiskies can open doors to wider thought-provoking pairings, or to drams which work regardless of the time of day – or the volume of food that has been consumed. You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.
TWE’s A Fine Christmas Malt 2021 – which whilst sherried, at no point falls into the cavernous pit that is wet casks and unchecked finishing periods. There’s enough sherry influence here to more than infer a Christmas vibe in terms of sugar and spice and all things nice – but at the same time, the “Orkney distillery” production and its particular style of distillate also offers a breadth that makes this single malt entirely suitable for any time of the year. A Highland Park is not just for Christmas.
So, to the specs – 16 year old HP with some portion of sherry matured casks within the composition (either a low proportion, or refill or both – don’t know). Bottled at a respectable 53.2% ABV and still available for sale via The Whisky Exchange for £79.95.
Nose: A highly attractive combination of toffee apples, apple compote and rich dulce de leche with a real fudge-y quality developing within the glass. Flinty minerality leads into delicate dusty smoke whilst sherried notes of fruit cake and chocolate covered glace cherries sit alongside leather seat coverings. The addition of water reveals notes of tobacco tins, burnt orange peels and chocolate torte.
Taste: The arrival speaks to flinty saltpeter and tempered chocolate. It is quickly livened by redcurrants and raisins before sweet earthy smoke (part burning hillside bushes, part smoked espresso beans) develops alongside overbaked pastries and dark honey. Reduction expresses orange peels and sunflower oil with a far bigger, more typically HP heathery smoke.
Finish: Medium with coal dust minerality, burnt bread and residual pepperiness.
This year’s TWE A Fine Christmas Malt presents as a highly characterful Highland Park packed full of well-judged sherry influence (far from a bomb) alongside a chiselled minerality that occasionally crosses the line into volcanicity. To my palate, this aside lifts the overall appeal of the composition – but those who are super pernickety about sulphurous influences may well consider taking the score down a peg or two.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange