Sometimes my sweet tooth has a craving for a rich and indulgent dessert. Sticky toffee pudding. Box ticked. At other times, my savoury senses hanker for seafood – big, fat juicy prawns. Delicious. But never does my palate hunger for both…at the same time. If you’ve made sticky toffee prawn pudding you’ve fucked up. Life is packed full of magnetism and inseparability. But it is equally laden with confliction, imbalance and disassociation. Not everything can and should belong together.
It's continually interesting that whisky fans will naturally turn to the idea of re-racking a whisky into a new cask to achieve a different flavour profile – as opposed to blending those two casks together. “Take that peated spirit and give it a go in some PX” is far more commonly suggested than taking a peated spirit and combining it with a different spirit matured in PX. Of course, the results will be markedly different – but nevertheless, the concept of blending the casks as opposed to moving the spirit and waiting some more doesn’t tend to occur in the minds of most ardent drinkers.
I suspect much of this narrow mindset is down to current market trends – single casks, identical mini-cask vattings and particularly finishes (of varying lengths) are plat du jour. They’re conceptually easy to understand. Whereas single malts composed of disparate distillates (my new band name) matured in different cask types, for different periods of time and brought together in unequal proportions, as a concept is both more theoretically difficult to comprehend and also harder for producers to communicate. But there’s still plenty of this going on. All the time. Just because your label doesn’t indicate that casks have been married, doesn’t proclude that the producer hasn’t seen the benefits of blending over finishing. Indeed, some of my favourite releases of the past few years have very cleverly added additional nuances (such as port) through a direct amalgamation, as opposed to re-racking – where a host more wood influence and tannins will be joining the party as a matter of course.
Blending isn’t talked about nearly enough. Cask selection, lengths of maturation, finishing – all of these topics have been done to death. But in all too many quarters of the whisky blogosphere blending is still all too commonly associated with either multiple distilleries or the introduction of grain. And outside of the enthusiast base, the concept and practices just aren’t understood at all. “How can single malt be blended?”
It is through the amalgamation of distillates and casks that distilleries can both achieve a unity in their products, and also, ensure that they have the widest number of crayons in their box with which to create new artworks. As a distillery, if you’ve only got a selection of green Crayolas, you’re going to struggle to paint a recognisable picture of a sandy beach, or a spewing, fiery volcano. Whereas if you’ve got a broad selection of crayons covering a wide swathe of colours, your artists have the maximum opportunity for creation. Conversely, blending is not really akin to making an infinity bottle. Whilst those will likely taste OK once or twice in their lifetime, they’re not really repeatable at any sense of scale – and similarly to smashing all your crayons together, they have a tendency to only produce varying shades of brown. Don’t ever think that you’ve mastered the art of blending in your living room on a Thursday evening. You haven’t.
That is not to say that small vattings and finishes are second fiddle to combining casks – far from it. Indeed, whilst cheese grated over a fried egg might seem unappealing, whipping those eggs into an omelette and then adding the cheese on top can make for something rather appetising. Transformation is simply nuturing nature.
The inventory that a distillery has to play with can be manipulated in a variety of ways – both to protect longer-term stock and to utilise the whole gamut of techniques to create new and individualistic expressions. It is through a mindfulness of all approaches – and in particular of their pros and cons – that diverse whiskies can be crafted with their elements arranged in harmony. Just dumping liquid into PX may at times produce remarkable results, but on many other occasions, it will simply produce an imbalanced result. Or over time, the exact same PX-finish that your customer-based have steadily grown tired of over the years.
Mackmyra’s 2021 autumnal Seasonal Collection release – Stjärnrök - comes with a cask recipe so extensive (even by Mackmyra standards) that it reads either like a Michelin Chef’s week-long recipe, or an arbitrary selection of dregs leftover from the distillery’s extensive private cask programme – whipped up – infinity bottle stylee. Neither of these is actually the case, but there’s nevertheless a lot going on here on paper:
Overly simplified, Stjärnrök is a smoky single malt matured in ex-bourbon and with additions of oloroso maturation and ex-cloudberry Swedish oak ala Mackmyra Moment Fjällmark from 2018. But Stjärnrök, which roughly translates as ‘star smoke’ – and is accompanied by some heavy-handed marketing blurb about rising into the sky, exploding and becoming a new phenomenon <shrug>, is far from simple. A few have indicated online that the combining a number of different cask styles produces higher complexity in a whisky. I’d argue that this is a broad misunderstanding – both of the blending of casks and of what complexity is and can be. Whilst it is certainly possible to build layers of aroma and flavour from integrating diverse cask styles – complexity is derived from a host of different factors – and in some cases can express itself wonderfully from a very simple distillate held in a single cask type its entire life. Back to the artworld analogy – a masterpiece can be produced using pencil alone.
Stjärnrök is an attempt at both balance, and reinvention. All of the elements contained within the cask composition of this new Seasonal release have been used by Mackmyra before – many of them ‘starring’ in previous and currently available expressions. Stjärnrök seeks to bring these components together into something outwardly new. And at the same time, it pursues a configuration that still expresses equilibrium. That the distillery has such a wide-ranging box of crayons to play with is both testament to their maturation foresight as well as being a factor of the distillery’s innovative outlook on whisky making in the most general terms. With Stjärnrök, the blend has quite clearly sought to temper its elements so that they sing in harmony – the smoke being a solo performance, but not an entire one-person show – the sweeter oloroso and cloudberry influences moderating the bitterness of both the smoke and the active oak and allowing for coherence throughout. Nothing is added here for the sake of it – that’s just not how distilleries or blending work.
Some would be surprised as to the recipe intricacy of many common single malts. And that’s down to the fact that many distilleries and bottlers don’t or won’t tell their customers – either to keep the messaging simple, or because they feel like they are preserving a competitive advantage. Nevertheless, if you look, you will find many other examples of multifaceted cask compositions. And if you dig deep into Scotch or blended malts, you might even have your mind a little bit blown as to how both quality and consistency can be maintained when utilising several dozen different styles – not just of cask styles, but from separate distilleries with entirely different makes. Again – that’s rarely happenstance.
And so, whilst Stjärnrök might appear to have a lot going on – I’d argue that it’s really just the transparency (as a point of difference) of Mackmyra which makes it appear so. Were the product described as smoky single malt matured in ex-bourbon, oloroso and ex-cloudberry, few would likely bat an eye or give the overall arrangement a second thought.
The release of Stjärnrök came early last month here in the UK. 17,000 bottles have been produced at 46.1% ABV (that standard for this series). You can still find bottles in a variety of outlets – here in the UK, you can purchase it directly from Mackmyra for £62.
Nose: Poached pear held under a cloche of vegetal smoke – burnt fir needles and cedarwood oil – alongside damp leaf mulch, pressed flowers and wintergreen. White grapes and Yellow Chartreuse bring a freshness and herbalness of sage and gentian alongside vanilla fudge and asides of fabrics from canvas satchels. The addition of water offers ginger spiced red apple together with nut loaf – but a lot of the more subtle herbal and vegetal asides are lost and become muddy – stick at 46.1%.
Taste: The arrival indicates a far more prominent rök (smoke) – but nevertheless, this is still a player and not a leader in the proceedings. Smouldering wet leaves alongside rosewood, fir and sage lead into pain au chocolate with additions of ripe redcurrants and vanilla buttercream before a twist of pepper and a sprinkle of ground ginger. Reduction presents rosehips and tart herbaceous berries alongside a much more palpable drying and tannic oak influence.
Finish: Medium and with plenty of leafy character alongside fresh, metholated oak.
Mackmyra’s Stjärnrök successfully brings together three distinctive styles from the distillery that I have experienced several times before separately - the juniper-tinged rök (smoke), the assortment of forest-influenced berries and the straight-down-the-line orchard fruits and vanilla derived from ex-bourbon maturation. And the result is both very well integrated as well as rather quaffable. This said, whilst there’s undeniably an elegance at play here in terms of how well each element has been integrated, there’s also something unassuming at the same time. Stjärnrök feels too tranquil too often - and I find myself yearning for one of the elements (over and above the back palate spice) to take a firmer grip and send the expression down a more singular, defined path throughout the development. Commendable evenness, but at the expense of the promised exploding new phenomenon.
Review sample provided by Mackmyra