Exploring older whisky should not always be about seeking out legendary expressions and venerable age statements. Whilst not all releases stand as milestone moments for a distillery, there are aspects of every bottling that have something interesting to say about their creation and creators. Changes to production and maturation techniques, variations in consumer tastes and expectations, and adaptations to labelling and marketing – all of these can be gleaned from exploring older whiskies. Not everything has to be radical and revolutionary - every whisky marks a certain point in time.
At yet, it seems that there’s exploring older whisky, and there’s *exploring older whisky*. I’m seeing fewer older bottlings being opened – almost irrespective of their provenance. Possessing a closed liquid library, whilst preserving a historical record, in no way helps build up our true understanding of the history of the product itself. Just facts about distillery ownership and production capacities. Archival whisky rather defies the purpose of a product that was designed to be consumed.
On the flip side, the consumption of older bottlings, by necessity, reduces the quantities of that finite resource…what is explored today becomes unavailable to explore tomorrow. And yet, without folks being prepared to dig into older whiskies, there’s a tendency to believe that whisky was always better ‘then’ (a huge and incorrect generalisation). Stockpiles and whisky shrines tend to make me sad. Whilst I fully understand the hesitation to open a bottle that’s accumulated greatly in value, there’s still plenty of older whisky that’s arguably ripe for exploring rather than saving. There’s still a happy medium to be found.
Today’s review is a point in time for resurgent Speysider Tamdhu who are building a new fan-base with a developing sherry-forward portfolio. This NAS release looks to me to be from a time when the distillery was owned by Highland Distillers (the forerunner of Edrington) – who purchased Tamdhu in 1899, saw it through two decades of silence between the World Wars, and gradually shifted its profile from blend filler to ex-sherry focussed single malt, before Ian MacLeod took over the reins in 2011.
This seemingly unremarkable NAS bottling was quite possibly released in the late 80’s at a time just before Tamdhu became one of Edrington’s key sherry wood suppling distilleries – the site was already providing malt for Glenrothes and Highland Park (unpeated) via its now unique Saladin box maltings. The expression is delivered at 40% ABV and will cost you anywhere from £40-£70 depending on where you find it.
Nose: The oldness here is immediately apparent with plenty of mustiness, dunnage floors, pencil shavings and OBE (overripe mango and guava) – but, it rather works all the same. Behind that, is a surprisingly strong spirit back-bone that recalls vintage brandy and well-made grape spirit alongside blood oranges and hedgerow berries. Milk chocolate and toasted bread sit in the background – inviting, and seemingly untouched by age.
Taste: A great mouthfeel for the minimal ABV – impactful and coating with a good balance between softness and stickiness. Flavour wise, we’re veering off into the bitter and the tart – greengages and gooseberries sit with a balsamic reduction, bullet-like berries and another huge whack of musty fustiness (mushroom, soaked earth and 19th Century wallpaper). Soft brown sugars along with silky toffee provide a much needed lift, before the back-palate starts to express aspects of minerality and tartness with polished steel and grapefruit.
Finish: Short to medium in length – the cask pushing out through decades of bottling – white pepper, toast and drying woody tannins.
It’s fair to say that this Tamdhu has seen better days – losing much of its brightness and precise fruit. However, what remains is still firmly (and pleasantly) spirit-forward, nuanced and with some excellent texture and weight. It’s always tricky to review older bottlings – you can only judge what is presented to you. But, it’s easy to suggest that the quality of Tamdhu’s spirit has remained consistently high across the decades. A tired retiree, who’s a little craggy around the edges, but still has plenty of tales to tell.
With thanks to Alistair @SpiritAndWood