You can’t have it both ways. Folks regularly bemoan distillery-only bottlings – an unfair limitation on their god given rights to obtain whisky. All the whisky. A slap in the face for an increasingly FOMO obsessed fan base. “Can’t I just order it online and have it delivered?” And yet, distillery exclusives are still one of the first things which enthusiasts enquire about when visiting distilleries “what have you got which I can’t get anywhere else?”. There’s double-standards at play when it comes to distillery exclusives - they’re only loved when they’ve already been acquired.
Distillery-only bottlings *can* be a wonderful thing – in some cases offering the additional experience of bottling your own. A memory of the moment and a liquid memory to reflect back on in at a later time. I’m taken-back that some distilleries never offer a distillery exclusive bottling – it just seems such a no-brainer both from an experiential/tourist point of view, but also commercially. Find cask, put cask in shop, profit.
There are right ways and there are wrong ways to go about putting on distillery-only bottlings.
Accessibility is always an issue – and physical accessibility is what tend to upset people when it comes to distillery exclusives. Can’t get there? Don’t have any friends? Can’t afford to pay a bus load of people to visit Chichibu on a raiding party? Then no chance. But at the same time, price accessibility is also a huge thing. A couple of years ago I took some folks up to visit Glendronach – at the time, not a particularly stunning tour experience…despite being the first of a dozen distillery videos I was going to have to watch that week. Nevertheless, the Glendronach handfill is a thing….but not when it’s presented at close to £300 with no opportunity to even try before you buy. That’s the opposite of accessible. And for me, a hard no.
There are certainly some very wealthy people who visit distilleries – catering for their tastes (and budgets) is no problem, and indeed canny. But not at the expense of 95% of your other visitors. Here’s an idea – why don’t you put on two distillery-only options? Or, take a leaf out of the Tomatin playbook and just rack them up like a beer festival. Something for everyone. Job done.
Similarly you have to ensure that there’s enough of the stuff to go around. And trust me, through recent experience I’ve been part of a team who have learnt this the hard way. You haven’t got an exclusive if it’s all flown out the distillery so fast that it hasn’t even hit the shelves. Supply and demand - and the judgement of both.
And here we come to the crux of today’s piece – I do firmly believe that a distillery exclusive should be an opportunity to present something truly unique, not just notionally unique. I.E. not just limited because the label says so. None of these distillery-only options are cheap, so I think its fair game to suggest that anyone who’s tempted to buy one is either a) impressed enough with the distillery’s wares b) an existing fan of the distillery’s style c) Looking something distinctive to take home with them d) all of the above. As such, an offering which is tangentially different to a distillery’s core products – by style, ABV etc – is a much more interesting prospect to be offering for folks to buy when they’ve made the effort to visit to a distillery. I don’t just want your standard 12 year old with a different label design.
Distillery-only bottlings can be treated as something as a test bed for future releases. A limited foray into the weird and left-field. Glen Moray in this regard is an excellent example – a regular range of diverse distillery-only (kinda, if you’re on the list you can get it posted – they’ve unsurprisingly very happy to sell the things) bottlings, some of which you might well see (based on feedback) developed into wider releases at a later date. An ideal situation – visitors get to try and take away something distinctive, and the distillery gets to both broaden its visitor offering, and do some consumer testing. Win Win.
But all too often distillery exclusives are lazy. A stray ex-bourbon cask. Nothing particularly remarkable beyond being a single cask. And whilst this will not doubt sell quite nicely all the same, the path less trodden is oft-times much more interesting, as today’s review will attest.
Talisker’s 2019 distillery exclusive is an NAS that has been triple matured. An initial period in refill oak casks, then heavily charred American oak hogsheads and finally some time in European oak puncheons. Though the distillery’s website listing for the exclusive makes this sound more like a vatting of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry in to the heavily charred casks. Either way – one of these two things. 6,000 bottles were produced at 48% ABV – and in zero surprise are only available for those making the journey to the Isle of Skye home of Talisker.
Nose: Initially quite leathery with notes of welding aprons, saddleback bags and heavy jackets. Brown sugars are joined with reduced jammy red berries, whilst liquorice and placid pepperiness meets a vein of dainty ashy peatiness (abridged when compared to many Talisker expressions). Waffles and batter bring additional sweet cues – the amalgamation akin to a delicately smoked berry strudel. Moist earthiness and wild honey run in the background with notes of farmyard hay. Reduction presents orange zest, waterlogged felled wood and bonfire that has just started to kindle.
Taste: The arrival offers vivid candied lemon peels and squeezed oranges – both sweet and tart – alongside salted caramel, dark chocolate and burnt toffee. Smoke is more pronounced here – though still restrained by the maturation regime – blackened toast, hearth ash and enduring wood smoke. The addition of water brings the fruit complement to the fore – bright, sherry-forward raspberries and strawberries alongside icing sugar, barley water and some chalky minerality.
Finish: Medium with tart red fruits, pink peppercorns and fading peat and wood smoke.
A distillery exclusive whose triple maturation not only feels impactful, but also results in an expression which presents a rather different viewpoint on the spirit. And that may or may not appeal. Talisker purists will find reduced coastalness, reduced pepperiness and a lighter overall smoke level. Despite the decent ABV, this is not the sort of wallop that the distillery delivers in its other expressions. However, on the flip side, each of the three casks has had a discernible influence on the spirit and the amalgamation feels is layered and well-integrated. It’s undeniably Talisker, but at the same time, undeniably altered. And in my view that’s just the sort of thing which distillery exclusives should be offering – a path less trodden for those willing to make the journey.