In my opinion, Glendronach are producing the best quality, and best value, sherry-matured whisky available for a reasonable price. I know that's quite a big claim, but I stand by it!
Their excellent 15yo and 18yo Oloroso-matured malts, and the NAS Cask Strength bottling's, are all real 'sherry monsters', and are also excellent value for money. The distillery also regularly releases batches of single cask bottling's, matured in a range of different sherry casks, and bottled at cask strength. There are also a couple of recent bottling's matured in bourbon casks (not single casks), but I'm yet to try any of those. There's also a more heavily-peated expression in the works, which I'm really looking forward to.
This Highland distillery has had a slightly tumultuous past, having had many different owners since it opened in 1826. It was mothballed in 1996, before re-opening in 2002 under new owners, with a number of changes to their production process. They were even malting their own barley, using the traditional floor malting process, up to the closure. The malted barley was dried in-house, using a mixture of coal, and (drum roll please) a little peat, apparently to around about 10-15 ppm, which is similar to the level Benromach are currently using. It's a very subtle / barley detectable level though, especially after those sherry casks have done their thing!
Prior to the closure, Glendronach was one of the few Scotch distilleries still to employ direct-fired stills, where fires are used to heat the still from below, rather than the safer and more efficient 'indirect' steam heating that is more commonly found. Glendronach was also the last distillery in Scotland to direct-fire using coal, rather than gas. As you can imagine, direct-fired stills can be a little more unpredictable (particularly when using coal), but it's the traditional, artisanal method. There are still a few distilleries that are using direct-fired stills, such as Glenfarclas, Springbank, and Glenfiddich, while there are a few more using a combination of direct- and indirect heating.
Unfortunately when the distillery re-opened, these practices ceased. From 2002 the malt was sourced from local commercial malting's, and the distillery converted to indirect-heated stills in 2005. But, if you come across a bottling which was distilled prior to these changes, which if you consider the closure period is currently anything older than 13 or so years, you're really getting the old style Glendronach. In 2008, the distillery was purchased by current owners Benriach distilling company, and the deal included 9000 casks of maturing whisky, some of which dated back as far as the early 1960's. Like the company's other distilleries, they don't chill filter or add any colouring, and most expressions are bottled at 46% or above.
The sample I'm reviewing today (thanks Matt!) is from a UK exclusive single cask bottling, which was matured for 20 years in a Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry puncheon (a squat ~500L cask). It was bottled in 2014, at a cask strength of 54.8%. This is actually my first PX-only Glendronach, so it'll be very interesting. But being cask strength 20 year old Glendronach, it's going to be good...
Glendronach Single Cask 20yo, 54.8%. Highlands, Scotland.
Cask number 2822, UK exclusive. Distilled 11/1994, bottled 11/2014. Matured in PX sherry puncheon, yielding 660 bottles. Bottled at cask strength, without chill filtration or added colouring.
Colour: Dark bronze, slight red tinges.
Nose: Mature PX sherry straight away - loads of juicy raisins, nice and rich but not overly sweet, dark caramel, a little spice. Some stone fruit as well. Golden syrup, hints of oak & pepper.
Texture: Thick & syrupy, slight touch of heat.
Taste: Sweet honeyed barley, white pepper. Becomes drier & more spicy quite quickly. Rich dark fruits in syrup, and mildly bitter coffee.
Finish: Medium length. Chilli dark chocolate, dry coffee grounds, spiced burnt caramel, malted barley.
Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: Very good and enjoyable, and nicely balanced. Some PX matured whisky can become overwhelmed by the cask, or can become very sweet, but this hasn't been the case here. Not quite the massive sherry monster I was expecting, either. Nonetheless, another great quality Glendronach!
But compared to Glendronach's standard 15yo, 18yo and Cask Strength (NAS) expressions, all of which can be found for around or under $150 AUD, I think these older single cask releases are a little too expensive. And you have to take the nature of the single cask beast into account, they can be a bit of a gamble after all. Some may be brilliant, some may be good, and some may only be decent. So it's important to do as much research as you possibly can before buying.
Glendronach are making some brilliant whisky though, I haven't tasted a single one I haven't enjoyed. And they're amassing quite the hardcore fan base, for good reason. I can't wait for their peated release, either, as long as there's some sherry casks involved!