A taste of Christmas
Posted 13 December 2023 by Matt / In Undisclosed Speyside
Bottle Name: A Good Old Fashioned Christmas Whisky 2023 Edition
Distillery: Undisclosed Speyside
Bottler: The Whisky Exchange
What does Christmas taste like? And stemming from that - what does Christmas in a glass taste like? Depending on where you live in the world, Christmas can taste remarkably different. In Poland, Barszcz (beetroot soup). In Denmark Julesild (spiced, pickled herring). In the Philippines, Bibingka (rice-flour cakes). But here in the UK, outside of the traditional roast Turkey, the rich, fruit-laden Christmas cake has been synonymous with the holiday since the 16th century.
Originally fashioned as a plum porridge, designed to line people’s stomachs after a day of religious fasting – the Christmas cake steadily evolved into what you’d recognise today. Initially through the removal of the oats and the addition of flour, eggs and then with the incorporation of spices which were being increasingly imported from the east. Better off families could afford to wrap their cakes in marzipan and icing (thus helping to retain its moisture). And then progressively since the invention of plastic in 1907 – with the adornment of what would commonly be labelled as inedible “tat”.
Despite the cultural differences of preferred Christmas consumables (and indeed, the large number who do not celebrate) – the association between the Christmas cake and whiskies which are perceived to imitate its flavours has grown ever stronger. Producers and retailers are always keen to push this connection as part of their end-of-year-tactics – and I’ve been absolutely guilty of this myself in the past. Marketeers will market.
There is something to be said about the natural imperative for correlation when it comes to our food and drink consumption. As humans we automatically relate eating and drinking to certain times of the day and certain times of the year. Cereal at breakfast, strawberries in the summer, stews and soups in the cooler months. We have evolved to associate seasonality with freshness and related to that – to heightened taste and improved nutritional value. Sprinkle over some cultural and societal traditions and there it is – it’s obviously sherry at Christmas.
However, that’s rarely my thinking - likely due to my ongoing partiality for all things refill ex-bourbon. As such, even when presented with a venerable, cola-dark bottle, I’ll more than likely reach around that for something which I believe will cut through all the richness that’s habitually on offer around this time of year. I don’t view a sherrybomber as innately anymore celebratory than any other style – and indeed, I’m rarely looking for a whisky which attempts to mimic something I’m already eating. I am doubtless in the minority here.
But one thought that did occur to me recently as I was working through a pile of sherried cask samples – how much sherry influence is the right amount for a whisky that’s pertaining to being “a taste of Christmas”? One might assume that this would merely be the maximum level of extraction of Christmas-eque flavours (raisins, dates and spices - I.E. Christmas cake). However, as I tasted through an array of oxidatively aged sherry styles (oloroso, moscatel and PX), I mused that each of these not only offered a different take on the aromas and flavours that one might relate to the holiday – but that their concentrations also played an enormous role in achieving the perfect impersonation of the festive dessert. A short PX finish – not long enough to truly develop the archetypal character – a much older, full-term oloroso – an over-extraction of oak which masked the desired dried fruit profile. The balance is not obvious, nor automatic to my mind.
Christmas might be sherry. But not all sherry is the same. Nor are all sherry maturations. Some can and do mimic the aromas and flavours of the prototypical holiday cake – others are simply marketed as being “Christmas whiskies” because of their cask type alone.
Nevertheless at this time of year, it is still commonplace to see folks purchasing their Christmas sherry cask whiskies based on their hue and perceived level of extraction alone (the greater the better in both cases is my takeaway from watching from the sidelines). That naturally leads down particular general paths – usually towards things which are ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’. And regardless of where you are in the world, that saying could cover a cornucopia of Christmas-time treats. So, thinking back to the many ‘Christmas Editions’ I’ve sampled over the years, I’m left wondering whether our association with sherry and Christmas is a genuine desire to mirror those flavours of Christmas – or, perhaps more likely, that it’s simply an unconditioned human craving to end the year with something indulgent. Being of an accepted style, as opposed to possessing an inflexible substance.
That brings us onto another of The Whisky Exchange’s annual bottlings – the 2023 Edition of ‘A Good Old Fashioned Christmas Whisky’. I’m nearly, but not quite late to this party. This year’s release does naturally lean into the ‘expected’ flavours of the season – certainly more than the 2021 bottling. This time around we’re presented with a marriage of 15 year old ex-sherry casks distilled at a mystery Speyside distillery. 1,800 bottles have been produced and you still able to pick one up just in time for your holiday. 52.5% ABV and available directly from The Whisky Exchange for £89.95.
Nose: Immediate toffee, both soft and buttery and burnt and crisp. Shredded wheat, tanned leather and chopped walnuts are joined by a hearty portion of orange segments, whilst orchard fruits are wrapped in pastry creating a strudel. Milk chocolate and plump raisins run throughout. So far, so Christmassy – albeit leading with stocking oranges (see, it’s easy to relate almost any flavour to something about the holiday). With water a much more creamy complexion – coffee and walnut cake, nutmeg, cloves.
Taste: Tangible body and palpable spice. The arrival is punchy with tangy orange (peels and oils) and prominent cask influence from stem ginger and piquant cinnamon. The development heads towards caramel and dried fruits (still rather orchard/orange, but also bringing in sultanas and prunes) and does indeed now feel somewhat ‘cakey’ – Dundee cake with a hearty sprinkling of cask char. Reduction is rather positive here – softer spices and again a creamier aspect from chocolate, tobacco and leather together with red berries and perhaps even marzipan.
Finish: Medium in length with fading cinnamon (fireball heat) and nutmeg alongside rosehips and silky milk chocolate providing balance.
Despite being composed of full-term sherry maturation casks, this year’s Good Old Fashioned Christmas Whisky isn’t a ‘bomb’. Nevertheless it is - particularly on the palate – forceful and effective with its delivery of spice and swathe of sweet-forward flavours. Christmas-eque? likely so - winter warmer - unquestionably.
There's some flexibility for dilution here. Indeed, overall I preferred it taken down a couple of degrees to a point where the spicing and orange character were following rather than leading. And to my mind that makes this edition very easy to like - even for a sherry Scrooge such as myself.
But don't take our word for it..
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