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Monday, 17 April 2017

Springbank 21 Year Old (Hart Brothers) Whisky Review!

Yes, an independent bottling of Springbank. Not an easy thing to come by! And it gets even better, because this is a 21-year old, first-fill sherry cask, cask strength independent bottling of Springbank. How good is that!

Never heard of Hart Brothers? Well they're an independently-owned whisky blender & bottler based in East Kilbride, near Glasgow in Scotland, and have been around in the current form since 1964. They are of course a little more obscure than your big name independent bottlers, but for some reason they are, or at least were, quite easy to come across in Australia. That said, their bottlings receive very mixed reviews, with some being well regarded, and some being despised. There is certainly a bit of risk involved when buying a bottle from a more obscure bottler, particularly when there are no reviews or further information available online. But it seems that taking a chance does pay off every now & then!

There aren't many independent bottlings of Springbank out there, at least in Australia, probably since the vast majority of spirit produced at the distillery is bottled and sold as one of their own single malt, although Springbank do produce their own blended whisky under the name Campbeltown Loch. There are occasional bottlings from Cadenhead's, since they're also owned by Springbank's owners, and the SMWS seem to get their hands on a few casks, but that's pretty much it. But then when the distillery in question is already independently owned, only bottles at 46% and above, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, does their fair share of experimentation and single cask bottling, and is usually priced pretty fairly, then there isn't really as much need for independent versions in the marketplace.

Unfortunately there's very little information out there on this particular Hart Brothers bottling, other than what is printed on the label. It was distilled in June of 1993, and bottled in October of 2014 at a cask strength of 52% ABV, and was matured in first-fill sherry butts. So we don't know what type of sherry cask was used, and 21 years in a first-fill cask is a long time, so this one is very interesting. At least we do know that all Hart Brothers bottlings are naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, which is good news. Unfortunately there's no mention of whether this is a single cask bottling or not, and there's no cask number/s or number of bottles stated, so I'd assume it wasn't from a single cask. Not that it really matters, of course. Let's get to it!

Springbank 21 year old, Hart Brothers, 52%. Campbeltown, Scotland.
Matured in a first-fill sherry butt. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Amber.

Nose: Very waxy! Can't say I've found that in a Springbank before. Certainly not to this level. There's loads of orange as well, orange rind specifically, and some light wood spices. Slightly dusty & meaty as well. A little spearmint toothpaste, and some milk chocolate orange (think Terry's choc orange). The orange note becomes more of a sweet orange juice with more time, while the wax subsides a little, and a cherry note appears. Quite a complex nose on this one! 

Texture: Medium-to-heavy weight, a slight touch of heat. 

Taste: Meaty & spicy, more chocolate, and a light dusty earthy-ness. Some malt in the background too. The orange is still there but it's more of a bitter orange now, and it's much less prominent than on the nose. Still quite waxy, and a little more fruity. 

Finish: Medium length. Quite a hot minty-ness now, and more of that dusty earthy note, plus the milk chocolate and orange. Possibly a hint of sulphur here as well, but not in an unpleasant way, at least not to my palate. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Very interesting! Not like any other Springbank I've ever tasted, but then it's also the oldest Springbank I've tasted. The strong wax and orange notes in particular were very interesting, this is probably the strongest notes that I've experienced of those flavours, particularly since they're both there simultaneously. Very enjoyable though, not unpleasant by any means, just interesting and quite surprising. This is where independent bottlings really shine if you ask me, giving us a totally different and new take on a familiar distillery, and forcing our minds to be a little more open with each sip. Great stuff.

Not at all what I expected from this Hart Brothers, and it's changed my impression of their bottlings for the better, despite there being plenty of negative experience out there. I would recommend trying this one, but to be honest I don't really like your chances of finding a bottle! A big thanks to the generous anonymous donor for the sample of this one. 


Sunday, 9 April 2017

Balblair 1990 Vintage Whisky Review!

Firstly, my apologies for skipping last week's review, I'd just stepped off a plane and was hardly in the right shape to analyse a dram! Hopefully this one makes up for it, because it's time to tick another distillery off the list! I've actually had this sample on the shelf for quite a while (sealed, of course), and had basically forgotten about it. But there's no time like the present!

Balblair Distillery is quite a small distillery in the Scottish Highlands, near the town of Edderton, around an hour's drive North of Inverness. Now owned by Inver House Distillers, who also own Old Pulteney and a few other lesser-known Scottish distilleries, Balblair claim to be the oldest distillery in the Highlands, having been officially founded in 1790, although the entire distillery was moved less than a kilometre in 1872 to be closer to the new railway, so I'm not exactly sure about the validity of that claim. If correct though, this would have made it one of the oldest Scotch whisky distilleries still in existence. Which I'd wager would've been of more benefit than being closer to the since-closed railway, but of course hindsight is 20/20. The distillery was also mothballed for a massive 48 years during the great depression and both world wars, before production re-started in 1949, and it's been going strong since.

Like most of the lesser known distilleries, until relatively recently the vast majority of Balblair's 1.3 million litre annual production capacity went into blended whiskies, most notably Hankey Bannister. Since 2007 though around 15% of production has been officially bottled as single malt, and in a move that seems to be becoming more popular the distillery only labels its bottlings with the vintage, where the label states the year of distillation and usually the year of bottling, rather than giving a clear age statement. Note that these are not single cask bottlings though, they're still vattings of different casks, but coming from the one distillery they are of course still single malts. For a little interesting factoid, Balblair was a filming location for the 2012 Scottish film 'The Angel's Share', serving as the distillery where the unfortunately fictitious cask of Malt Mill was discovered & subsequently auctioned. And another little factoid, the distillery's water source is located in the Wester Ross region of the Highlands, which might sound vaguely familiar to fans of Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire...

But let's get back on track. This particular bottling was distilled in 1990 and bottled in 2013, after spending 21 years maturing in ex-bourbon casks, and around two years further in Spanish oak ex-sherry casks. This is the second release of the 1990 vintage, the first was released in 2008 and was a 'travel-exclusive' bottling, while this second release was much easier to find, and actually won an award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014. It was bottled at 46%, and thankfully is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, as all of Balblair's official single malt bottlings have been since they launched in 2007. Let's look a bit closer, shall we?

Balblair 1990 Vintage, 2nd release, NAS*, 46%. Edderton, Scotland.
*Distilled 1990, bottled 2013. Matured for 21 years in ex-bourbon casks, and finished for 2 years in Spanish oak ex-sherry casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Copper.

Nose: Quite dry, fruity and lightly spicy. Dusty barley, red apple, dry oak. Stewed stone fruit, some old soft leather and vanilla-scented wood polish. Some golden syrup, hint of dried apricot & fig, and a little warm ginger. 

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, rich & warming. No heat at all. 

Taste: Rich, savoury & spicy. Ground ginger, some cinnamon, a little dry oak again. More of that soft leather & wood polish, and savoury & fruity BBQ sauce. More dried stone fruit, and some black cherry. Delicious! 

Finish: Long. Spicy & fruity, and becoming dry with time. Some orange peel, a little peppery oak and warm cinnamon, a little red grape and cherry, dark chocolate and light wine tannins, becoming quite wine-y actually. Very nice. 

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Impressive... Most impressive! Complex and well balanced, although quite savoury overall, not that that's a bad thing at all. There's plenty of sherry influence from that two year finishing, but it hasn't overwhelmed either, there's plenty going on alongside. I'm not usually a fan of tannins or red wine in general, even in whisky, but I actually really enjoyed the finish on this one, and I still am as I write this, it's quite a long one! I'd normally wish for cask strength in a whisky this old, but I actually think 46% was just about perfect for this one, there's no shortage of flavour or texture here. Can't believe I left this sample on the shelf for so long!

Adding to the allure of this bottling was that it's still around, and is quite reasonably priced, going for $240 AUD here, which isn't exactly cheap in general terms, but for a whisky of this age and quality I'd say that's actually pretty fair. Highly recommended if you like your whiskies on the older and more savoury side. I'm very impressed with this one!

It wouldn't really be fair to use a 23-year old vintage bottling as an example of Balblair's general aptitude as a distillery, but if this is the sort of thing they can do then I'm a believer. And I didn't really expect to say that coming into this review, to be honest, so this was a very pleasant surprise. Which just goes to show that we should never judge a book by its cover.