Being a Londoner, I’m rather spoilt for choice when it comes to whisky bars. Whilst many venues have and do offer a broad selection of brown liquids, it is really only over the last decade or so, that I’ve noticed whisky moving from out of the traditional pub/bar space and into what are dedicated, specialist venues. Floor to ceilings with bottles, menus so vast as to take the indecisive drammer (there’s a name for a new blog) longer to select a whisky as to actually drink it. But, this all comes at a price. A very literal high price. Drinking anything in London outside of the norm – older, discontinued, or limited release bottlings - requires deep pockets. Business is business, and whisky can be a very profitable one.
Whisky bars are often nowadays playing the same games as we the enthusiasts. They too are gunning for current limited release expressions (often with an on-trade ‘in’ that the average drinker can’t access) whilst also sitting on auction sites to obtain older bottles and rarities. A well-stocked bar needs to provide their clientele with the most appealingly broad selection of whisky they can muster – and this includes delectable older drams as well as the latest fad limited editions.
Then, way outside of London (and oft-times up in Scotland – close to the source) there’s the rural whisky bar. Usually denoted on a terribly old fashioned website with a grainy photo showing some seemingly well-stocked shelves, and a mere note that they’ve ‘got a few bottles knocking around’. To the uninitiated, these locations might not seem as immediately appealing as a glitzy dedicated whisky bar with a swanky website and constantly updated .pdf bar menu – they’re often far from being as physically accessible. But, once you’ve visited a few of these unassuming bars (you'll find them in little hotels and guest houses where the owners are likely just as obsesses as whisky as you are), you’ll quickly realise the benefits (as a drinker) to a venue who’s business model doesn’t solely revolve around the drinks trade.
Hidden gem hotel whisky bars make me smile, and my visit to Arran last week delivered a particularly broad smile with bottles I’ve not seen for decades and prices from a similar bygone era. 1970 30 year old Dalmore for £15, 38 year old sherried Pulteney for under a tenner, Bowmore 25 year old with change back from a twenty pound note. Blimey. As city boy, you don’t see these prices every day….if usually anywhere. I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for anyone willing to sell their bottles (which they’ve been acquiring over many years) for the price that they paid for them.
That’s the mentality of a true whisky enthusiast. It's likely a terrible idea for maximising the profits from your business, but sharing is caring afterall.
Suffice to say I’ve been having rather the good time of it.
The dram from my time at this Mecca of fair pricing that I’ve decided to write about today was not the oldest I sampled, nor the most discounted, nor the most famous – but it is to my mind one of the most distinctive and memorable.
Knockdhu was built in 1894, close to Knock Station to take advantage of the Banff branch of the Great North Scotland Railway. The site is also conveniently located close to sources of both barley and peat. Location. Location. Location. The distillery’s name translates as ‘grey hill’ – though owners Inverhouse decided that this was too similar to that of another Speyside distillery – namely Knockando – so changed the brand to An Cnoc (which means ‘black hill’ – so that hill has clearly darkened over the years) back in 1989. You’ll still see the occasional independent bottling of Knockdhu – these keep the original distillery name intact.
The Knockdhu 23 year old was distilled in 1978 (the best of vintage years for whisky writers) and bottled in 2001 at a cask strength of 57.4% ABV. 3200 bottles were produced and sold originally for a shy under £60. Nowadays, you can expect to pay over twice that – £150 at the March 2019 Scotch Whisky Auction was the most recent marker for this bottling I can find. £150 for a 23 year old feels about in-line with the current whisky market for such an age. Sadly.
Nose: Well-polished oak is joined by an assortment of herbal liqueurs – sage, oyster leaf, cress and lemongrass – alongside, root ginger and wild honey. Running throughout – well-sherried aromas of oranges, mandarins, leather and sultanas. The two behave rather civilly together – neither vying for too much attention. The sherry here is in support, not running roughshod over everything else. Resting proves to be worthwhile – it releases dusty toffee, cloves and walnuts. Reduction is similarly worth an experiment (though despite the high ABV, you’ve probably not got as much leeway as you might have through – this is an older bottling after all) - malt drink, sunflower oil and brass door handles - interesting and elegant in an old fashioned way.
Taste: The arrival is impactful, though with nowhere near the raw bite you’d expect from 57.4%. It delivers a combination of lacquered wood and lemons, alongside barley water and chopped garden herbs. The mid-palate offers growing white pepper alongside some tartness from grapefruit and gooseberry. Dried fruits (orange segments) sit nearby adding sweetness to the intense cask spice influence which develops in the back palate – cloves and crystalline ginger. Reduction (a few careful drops) adds a more silky rounded dimension with orange liqueurs, melon balls, vegetal leafiness and hints of coal dust minerality.
Finish: Long, peppery and with a touch of mint and mentholated oak.
This historic Knockdhu is a highly characterful Highlander with a wonderful balance between power and elegance, and comes with a broad and deep array of complex aromas and flavours to unpick and enjoy. Its style is not hugely dissimilar to the modern An Cnoc, however the composition here is clearly from the past – spirit and spice are in ascendance, the cask is merely the support act. Noteworthy and well worth keeping an eye out for when you’re next at a well-stocked whisky bar with fair prices.