I first tasted the regular release of Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky a few years ago as part of an international whisky tasting that I co-organised. Bain’s is from South Africa and so it added not just another country, but another continent to the line-up. It had other things going for it too, as it was well reviewed, balanced the budget for the tasting, and seemed to be a good opening dram because it is a low ABV single grain.
But admittedly, we wouldn’t have included Bain’s in the tasting if it was from a country with a higher level of whisky competition, like the USA, Ireland, or even India. It was mainly in the tasting not because of how it tastes, but because its location ticked boxes. My experience with it serves as an example of the whiskies that are included in whisky tastings and collections to tick boxes based on some category they belong to. You might even own a few box tickers yourself.
People don’t just buy whiskies from new countries to tick boxes. How many of us have bought a bottle of Auchentoshan to tick off the Lowlands in their collection? A Jura to tick off all the Islands? A millet whisky to tick off all the grains? A tequila cask whisky to tick off all the casks? A new batch of a whisky to tick off all the batches? There are hundreds, if not thousands of boxes to tick.
In fairness, we often do buy whiskies from some unique category not to tick a box, but rather to have a new experience of smell and taste. Particularly when buying blind, we can’t tell if a whisky from a new place or doing a new thing will taste different to whiskies we’ve previously tried. That’s not box ticking, that’s a risk we sometimes have to take.
But if you taste widely and find a whisky category has no great affordable examples, don’t be afraid to leave it out of your collection or a tasting you host. You might be better off without a Lowlands whisky in your collection, but that doesn’t mean you can’t seek out a grassy whisky to enjoy. Tick boxes based on the flavours you enjoy and you’ll end up ticking off other types of whisky categories without even trying.
Today’s version of Bain’s single grain whisky could tick off another box for category collectors: fino cask finish. It was released as part of a triptych of cask finishes – also including oloroso and PX – all travel retail exclusives. The labels do not clearly refer to sherry, but Master Distillery Andy Watts confirmed they're all from seasoned sherry casks produced in Spain. The whisky was distilled from 100% South African corn at James Sedgwick distillery and initially placed into first fill bourbon casks. After three years, it was reracked into new first fill bourbon casks, where it stayed for another two years. Then it's into refill casks for a decade, and finally a transfer in to fino casks for a three year finishing period. This bottling was a limited release of 1900 1 litre bottles, released at 50.5% ABV.
Nose: The nose of this dram seems to change every other sniff. At first, the nose brought a rich opening on old wooden furniture and cocoa dusted brazil nuts. After a couple of minutes, some Jamaican rum funk briefly comes out to play – rotting bananas and petrol. A few more minutes adds some grain whisky varnish on to the old wooden furniture, plus some cloves and flashes of prunes and caramel. After a longer time in the glass, it becomes a more typical grain with heavy varnish, some prunes, and occasional flashes of rotting bananas and caramel. With water, the focus is still on the varnish, with cloves still present and some added vanilla and cream.
Palate: Opens on some lovely sherried notes – prunes and raisins along with some old wood, leather, and almond oil. On the mid palate, varnish and cream take over, with hints of Brazil nuts and the odd flash of petrol. The back palate has heavy clove spicing from the wood. The mouthfeel is medium to oily – oilier than a typical grain. Adding water seems to erase the fino’s contribution, moving the focus towards typical grain and bourbon cask flavours of varnish, vanilla, and cloves, pushing the dried fruit and nuts well into the background.
Finish: Medium on dark chocolate and cloves. With water, the cloves are still there but accompanied by vanilla and varnish instead.
This whisky does have the typical varnishy Scotch grain offnotes. But there are moments where this whisky seems more like a bourbon, with heavy vanilla and caramel, likely thanks to the active bourbon casks used. The fino influence – when it appears – is lovely as well, with some deep leather, nuts and dried fruits on the nose as well as a pronounced oiliness on the palate. With too much time or water, the fino influences fall away and the whisky is more like an old bourbon cask Scotch grain whisky. I don’t think there’s too much South African terroir here, but there’s plenty of influence from the unconventional cask management. I wouldn’t put this whisky in a tasting because of where it’s from, but I would put it in a tasting because of how it tastes – its unusual profile makes it a great whisky to share with friends (or strangers). But there is a bit too much varnish and clove spicing for me to want one of those litre bottles to myself.
Thanks to Max for the sample.Score: 83/100