My inbox is currently burgeoning with suggestions of the finest bottles to toast the bard with. A veritable flood of recommendations for whiskies that are judged the most suitable for an occasion such as this evening. And looking through the myriad pitches for appropriateness it seems that pretty much any whisky is fair game as being Burns approved. And that’s usually the rub with whisky daubed as ‘special occasion’ – as opposed to possessing any degree of relevance to the event, most occasionally-themed whisky is nothing more than an opportunity to sell bottles – popular bottles, unpopular bottles, special offer bottles – it honestly doesn’t matter. But it’s Burn’s night – so you really should buy something right?
That’s not to blame producers and (particularly) retailers – they’re simply doing their jobs. Burns requires toasting whisky and they’ll happily sell you some. But when you think about a year in its totality, the sheer number of potential occasions is mind-boggling. Outside of enthusiast circles, raising a glass occurs at weddings, funerals, birthdays and bar mitzvah’s. A dram might be considered for a national holiday, to celebrate historical event (see tonight) or simply to close out a busy and testing week. A thousand possible drams for a thousand possible occasions.
But there are some occasions that due to their timing come with an in-built sense of seasonality. And whisky too is often positioned as a seasonal drink – outside of the enthusiast bubble it has a long-standing reputation for being ‘strongly flavoured’ and strongly alcoholic (when compared to beer and wine) and therefore is deemed as more suitable for longer nights, colder evenings and roaring fires. And to some degree, whisky advertising – particularly from the past has played into this seasonal stereotype.
Within the drinks industry, seasonality sits alongside occasionality – both are useful tools within the marketing arsenal. The latter requires a date or time, the former – simply one of the four seasons with which to attempt to persuade the consumer that there’s a whisky out there that’s particularly attuned to the time of year.
In many ways, whisky *is* a seasonal product - from the sowing and harvesting of barley, through to the timed ebb and flow of production vs. maintenance. From a style and character point of view, it’s relatively easy to start to pigeonhole expressions into one of the four seasons. Springtime – a bright and perky awakener. Summer – a lighter, daintier refresher. And as autumn moves into winter simply bringing on all the peat and all the sherry – and for many people, ideally both at the same time.
This classification is of course too prescriptive and overly simplistic for many drinkers – as regardless of the time of year, many whisky lovers are happy drinking their preferred style of whisky no matter the weather. Drinkers are creatures of habit. However, there are physiological preferences for drinks to feel more appropriate to a particular season – and these often are pegged not by style, but to a perception of temperature. In the summer, a longer drink, packed full of ice, or fresh from the fridge – in the winter, a beverage that has been physically warmed up, or contains flavour combinations that the body perceives as warming – sweetness and spice. Most people would likely find the concept of a summer afternoon hot toddy as rather alien.
But whilst seasonality and occasionality can be linked – and nowhere is this at its most obvious as with the December festive period - this is naturally a very northern hemisphere approach. Christmas in Australia is a much warmer affair – even during Carols by Candlelight of an evening. And yet, some enthusiasts feel no massive urge to either change their whisky drinking preferences nor to attempt to transform their malts into something which might conform to the social norms of a seasonal beverage by heating, cooling or mixing. And that’s fine too. Whisky is a drink for all seasons – and in my opinion for all occasions.
So, Christmas – exactly one month later to the day with today’s review.
The period is arguably the most important for retailers – and not just those in the drinks industry. But within whisky, the seasonal linkage of drams to decking the halls has been growing increasingly stronger and more competitive in recent years. A quick glance at Whiskybase will indicate the expanding number of ‘Christmas whiskies’ (and these are just the ones who are directly name-checking it). Similarly, if you look down this list, you’ll see a raft of expressions which frankly could have been released at any time of year – irrespective of the occasion or whatever the season is, they’re nothing more than a ‘standard release’ with a snowman or sprig of holly printed on the label. And I guess for some, that’s seasonality enough.
For many, the concept of a Christmas whisky stems from its character and profile – of attempting to tie the whisky’s compositions into the cultural norms expected for the time of year. Sherry is of course rife – and it’s the most commonly thought of Christmas style – apparently not content with eating the Christmas cake, folks also want this in liquid form too. It’s therefore pleasing that today’s review subject from Paul John was crafted specifically for the occasion – but that it takes a different approach to most.
Paul John’s third festively themed offering - the Paul John Christmas Edition 2020 is composed of a triptych of cask types – unpeated virgin and oloroso casks combined with peated 1st fill ex-bourbon. The result is best described as lightly peated -the virgin and oloroso additions substantially reducing the smoke influence to that of a supporting act, not a lead singer. Released, in no surprise just before last Christmas and bottled at 46% I can’t find any information on how many bottles were produced – though noting the 2018 Edition consisted of 3,000 bottles, I’d posit that 2020’s release will likely be at least of a similar size. Good timing on my part – this is currently available from Master of Malt on a one-week flash sale for £47.95.
Nose: Aromatically spiced wood – cedar, sandalwood, lacquer and a touch of creosote that develops a meaty aspect the longer it dwells in the glass – roast beef joint. Fruit is quite tropically focussed – mushy banana and papaya alongside bright clementine. Smoke is background, but far from undiscernible – pan fats, log fires and a selection of mulling spices being heated until smoking in a dry pan. Dilution offers up stone fruits with peach and nectarine, whilst revealing additional underlying smokiness from a wood burning stove.
Taste: Spicy stuff! A heady combination of cinnamon, anise and cardamon sits with a smoked earthy ancho chilli. Assorted citrus peels – a St Clements of oranges and lemons joins spit-roasted pineapple whilst chocolate sprinkles and spent coffee grounds are mingled with gently peppery, dry wood smoke. Reduction isn’t necessary, nor overly advisable – crushed aspirin chalkiness and less precision and distinctive all-round. Stick at 46%.
Finish: Relatively short length with nutmeg and ginger livening earthiness and residue peat smoke.
Paul John Christmas Edition 2020 doesn’t take the undemanding, straight-forward approach to its seasonality by simply adding MOAR sherry. Indeed, what sherry there is here feels positively restrained. And what that allows this whisky express is dry, expansive spicing. The sense of “heated, sweetened and spiced” (to mull) comes through strongly throughout with a wood selection that’s fragrant and consistently interesting. Smoke is a support, but it’s one which adds a welcome additional dimension alongside fruit and spice. The finish is sadly rather short – which is my only disappointment in this otherwise easy to recommend whisky. Nevermind Santa – this, like all other special occasion whiskies is suitable any day of the week.
Review sample provided by Paul John