North British has been producing large quantities of grain whisky (1.25 million each week - primarily for blending) for over 120 years. But, increasingly, the distillery is being bottled as a single grain in its own right – Whiskybase lists thirty different independent expressions produced in 2017 – from a 6 year old Duncan Taylor Octave all the way to a 55 year old Douglas Laing XOP bottling. It seems somewhat strange that the distillery itself has not sought to bottle more of its own product – to date there’s only been four releases - two 1980 vintage cask strength expressions, and limited edition 40 and a 50 year olds.
The distillery was founded in 1885 to provide an alternative source of grain whisky for the blending market – Distillers Company Limited (DCL) had maintained an iron-clad grasp on much of the grain market since 1877 (manipulating supply to affect both prices and demand) until the North British distillery was constructed in Edinburgh. A shy over 100 years later and North British was ironically purchased jointly by Diageo (the modern day incarnation of DCL) and Edrington - in effect, now being 50% owned by the company it set out to compete with back in the late 19th Century.
500 bottles of the 50 year old were produced to commemorate the distillery’s 125th anniversary back in 2010, whereas 1000 bottles of the 40 year old were created for employees only – seemingly for long service awards and other such internal fanfare. You’ll find both of these longer aged editions available through retailers for ungodly amounts of money – don’t bother – whilst far from a common sight, these do still appear at auction – for considerable less of your hard earned cash.
Produced at a cask strength of 57.4% ABV, the 40 year old is starkly presented in a simple wooden box, with the bare minimum of fuss on the label.
Nose: The aromas of well-aged grain permeate a pleasant is simplistic nose – Custard cream biscuits, pancake batter, roasted cereals and vanilla pods. Supporting this are deeper notes of milk chocolate and freshly ground coffee beans. There’s plenty of sweetness here – a touch of honey, but also burnt sugars and molasses. Running throughout paint thinners and varnish – sharp, woody, but with plenty of oaky age. Reduction is beneficial, but not 100% necessary here – it brings out gentle stone fruits and really heightens the cerealness of the nose – plenty of breakfast oats and porridge.
Taste: A very syrupy texture that’s leads to a weighty arrival packed full of flavour. Honey, golden syrup and caramel join vanilla and tonka beans, chocolate cake and coconut shavings. This sweetness is tempered by both an underlying acetone flavour and also some intense earthiness – mushrooms and forest mosses. In the back palate, an interesting sourness – balsamic, pepperiness and tart maize grains. The addition of water softens the experience, which doesn’t shy away from its cask strength roots – in doing so, buttered popcorn, yeasty bread, toast and charred oak become perceptible, and some gentle tropical fruits start to emerge from the more overtly ex-bourbon driven flavours.
Finish: Long, with both coffee and tea and plenty of oak (which is neither tannic nor particularly drying). Again there’s a syrupy and thick consistency which makes for a fulfilling end to proceedings.
North British 40 year old commences only reasonably on the nose – which is down the line aged grain whisky through and through – and little more. It does however improve dramatically once in the mouth – especially on the finish, which is sustained and with a surprisingly amount of weight and grip. I’ve yet to taste a grain whisky which would make a convert of an ‘unbeliever’ to the malternative cause – and this isn’t the bottling that will do so either. But, it’s good honest well-aged grain and that’s nothing to sniff at.