Purple patch

Posted 21 July 2020 by Matt / In Undisclosed Islay
The Dramble reviews Fiona Macleod 33 year old

Bottle Name: Fiona Macleod

ABV: 46.3%
Distillery: Undisclosed Islay
Bottler: The Character of Islay Whisky Company
Region: Islay Age: 33

Whilst week by week and month by month spirit is largely homogenous – when explored over longer periods, its variances are much more apparent. No distillery stands completely still. Changes in ingredients, equipment, wood policy, personnel – or simply market desires for flavour profiles all result in whisky not nosing or tasting quite the same across the decades. And that’s saying nothing of batch variance. This incongruity is partly why some bottlings are particularly sought after - spirit styles that are no longer produced are no longer easily as tasted. And some folks do love a liquid time capsule. All life is forwards. The profile of spirit changes with it. And at certain moments (though often in hindsight – for whisky is not a quick thing) it just all comes together – the perfect amalgam of spirit profile combined with a great selection of exceptional casks. A purple patch of production.

Adjustments to raw ingredients or processes can (unsurprisingly) result in stark variances in spirit character. A little tinker here, a minor fiddle there – and one really should be expecting a downstream impact. Sometimes the results are immediately appreciable – other times, the outcomes are more akin to the butterfly effect and one must wait for few years of maturity to observe the results. Which may or may not be what was desired. Some alterations will result in more fundamental shifts than others – for instance an ‘upgrade’ from pine to stainless steel washbacks. And in cases such as this, distilleries who suggest that these modifications “will not have any consequence on flavour” are simply hoping that in a decade’s time you’ll have forgotten what the previous iteration tasted like. Changes will beget changes.

Enthusiasts often put the spirit styles of closed distilleries on a pedestal – much more so than those of distilleries that are still in operation. It’s understandable - there’s more finality to a distillery whose site is now a retail park. But nevertheless, they can and should be thought of similarly – whether bulldozed or simply a product of the past – these spirits have been consigned to the dustbin of history, and neither will be produced again in exactly the same fashion.

Whisky’s history is littered with examples of defunct spirits. Some, like dead movie stars and artists have garnered more fame with their passing – and added to the ongoing myth that whisky from the past was miraculously a better thing. Others still stand as specimens of experimental or poor production – cases in point as to why a particular spirit style isn’t produced anymore, or indeed why the distillery itself is now a block of flats. Not everything is made to last.

Whilst purple patches are always considered retrospectively, they’re often also viewed rose-tinted. There are many feted periods of production – and the reason for this fame varies – late 60’s Bowmore, early 90’s Ardbeg, 1995 Clynelish to name but a few – all special in their own ways. But whilst the stars can align to produce legendary liquids, these conjunctions are often centred around a particular series of releases. Or to be quite specific about it – the perception that builds around a particular series of releases. You’ll notice outliers – whether OB or IB – that hail from a supposedly illustrious time period and yet don’t seem to achieve the same heights, reputation….or asking price.

Cask vagaries and the art of blending will always dictate that whilst it’s possible to identify a purple patch for a distillery or distillate, that true greatness often transcends these norms. Every distillery with a sound spirit will achieve both runs of exceptional maturation as well as milestone bottlings (in their own terms). And similarly, every distillery will make choices and changes which are viewed by some as being somehow lesser, or simply not as otherworldly as bottlings past. You can’t win em’ all. But whilst a desire to explore the past will always be part of our present, whisky’s future is a highly mutable as the ingredients, processes and passions utilised to create it.

Fiona Macleod – the pseudonym of Scottish writer, poet and biographer William Sharp was kept a closely guarded secret until his death. Penned between 1893 and 1896 the selection of Fiona Macleod stories, novel and poems focussed on dreamlike mystical and religious Celtic fantasies. An apt moniker for today’s bottling drawn from The Character of Islay series – which like Sharp, is veiled beneath myths which have become more celebrated and synonymous than the actual reality.

The bottling is a 33 year old laid down in 1985 from an undisclosed Islay distillery. The Character of Islay Whisky Company’s website notes that the expression was producing during the last great distillery cull – a period of closures, mothballing and eventual demolition – which didn’t (at least terminally) extend to any of the seven sites which were producing on the island at the time. I’ll note that this same period was something of purple patch for one particular Islay distillery for an entirely different reason – that of producing an exceptionally perfumed violet/lavender-tinged spirit commonly known by enthusiasts as FWP (feel free to Google it).

And Fiona Macleod has this in spades on its palate – enough to conjure up taste memories of Swizzels Parma Violet sweets – which, according to the Guardian back in 2005 were voted the UK’s least favourite confectionary. 1980’s Bowmore has both its detractors and its aficionados – where some actively avoid, others actively seek.

This floral spirit style was produced until the end of the 80’s – however it isn’t omnipresent across the entire output of the time period - and from what I’ve tasted over the years, some bottlings are much more expressive of it than others. It's unknown (or at least uncommented publicly) what the production variable(s) was/were which resulted in this unforgettable spirit profile – and the distillery has, by and large, always denied that any significant changes in process or equipment ever took place during the period. Like William Sharp and the Fiona Macleod bottling itself - still something of a mystery.

The expression is delivered at 46.3% ABV and is available from Master of Malt for £399.95. It’s worth noting the similarly timed release of Elixir’s Islay Violets (going down the literal naming route) – also a 33 year old and with a mere 0.1% ABV and £0.95 difference. Coincidence? I think not.

Nose: Tropical fruit forward with griddled pineapple, mango and papaya alongside balled honeydew melon. Smoke is supporting and dainty, but nevertheless omnipresent - wispy memories of long-spent log fires, grilled meats and aromatic wood char. Running throughout heathery honey, golden syrup and marzipan icing. Reduction reveals mineralistic character – cliffs and crumbled aspirin together with brine and banana custard.

Taste: Saltwater followed by a huge hit of parma violets (“the floral flavour that divides the nation…”) – lavender and rosewater are enlivened by the bright tropical notes of mango and dried banana which persist. Lemon-tinged sugar and well-polished wood panelling is joined in the back palate by brine and charred oak staves. Water pushes further into floral territory with a developing chalkiness that heads towards washing powder but stays just on the right side of Daz for me.

Finish: Quite long and with sustained candied stone fruits, golden barley, salinity and polish.

Fiona Macleod 33 year old is the very definition of a liquid time capsule – entirely evocative of a period from distilling’s history now long past. But its long maturation period also brings with it a sense of modernity. The nose and palate are somewhat detached - the former offers a wide array of vibrant fruit notes stroked gently by coastalness and ethereal smoke. The latter performs something of a “ta-dah” revealing concentrated violet floralness synonymous with spirit style of the time period.

I’d suggest that those hunting for this distinctive profile will not be disappointed with the polished results that are on offer here. But that those who are entirely new to this period of distilling history will find this lost spirit style similar to the infamous purple confectionery – divisive.

Review sample provided by Atom Brands

Score: 85/100

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