I was lucky enough to receive four samples recently, direct from independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail in Scotland! Well, after I pried them out of the cold, ruthless hands of Australian customs that is (it was three weeks between them landing in Australia and me being notified of their arrival. Go team). Two of these samples are from slightly obscure distilleries that I've never tried before, one is from a distillery that I've only tried once, and the other is from a favourite Islay giant. So I'm going to give a quick rundown on the distillery details, and since I'm sampling four different whiskies in succession, a 'quickie' review of each.
But before we get into that, let's re-cover the story behind Gordon & MacPhail. G&M, as they're commonly known, is one of Scotland's oldest and most highly regarded independent bottlers, with roots dating back to 1895, and the company has been independently and family owned ever since. They also purchased the excellent Benromach Distillery in 1993, which since it reopened in 1998 has been garnering fans worldwide with their very high quality bottlings. G&M recently launched their 'The Wood Makes The Whisky' campaign (along with a very informative website), selecting a range of their bottlings that they feel highlight the relationship between the whisky and the cask. And since they've been maturing whisky in casks for over 120 years, they have plenty of experience, and a massive library of cask samples, to call on to get the resulting whisky exactly how they want it. To this end, the majority of G&M bottlings do not carry clear official age statements, but they do give the year of distillation, and often the exact date of bottling. They're also behind some of the oldest whiskies ever bottled, including a Mortlach that was a whopping 75 years old. If you have to ask, you can't afford it! So, let's get into the whiskies at hand, shall we?
This one was very pale gold in appearance, and I didn't pick a lot of cask influence here at all. On the nose I found dusty straw, red apple and acetone. On the palate it was lightly malty, with some wood spices and a little charred oak with some raw spirit on the finish. Overall I found this Glen Spey was pleasant enough and relatively easy drinking, but was rather bland and uninteresting, with very little cask influence.
This one is pale gold in colour, and is immediately warmer and richer on the nose, with plenty of fruit, malt syrup and is also a little nutty. On the palate it's really quite fruity, with grapes and light tannins, a little dark chocolate, lightly waxed fruit and peppery oak. Very enjoyable with more complexity and more flavour than the Glen Spey, and definitely far superior to the other Strathisla bottling I've tasted. Not a sherry monster by any means, despite the first fill cask, but very enjoyable. This bottling has certainly changed my perception of this distillery, despite the relatively low strength.
This one is shining gold in colour, and on the nose is sweet & fruity, with good pinches of spice and pepper, and a little damp grass. On the palate I found stewed fruits in syrup, some gentle warm oak, a little peppery spice. Enjoyable again, with only slightly less cask influence than the Strathisla, so I'd guess this was still quite an active cask despite being a refill.
Straight away this Caol Ila feels more familiar, but with a noticeable difference to most bottlings. Light gold in colour, it's surprisingly sweet on the nose, with boiled sweets, baked ham glazed with honey & balsamic vinegar, a spicy and grassy peat, some blow-torched dried herbs, slightly metallic coal dust, and a little chilli spice. On the palate it's very sweet again, rich thick fruit syrup with a gentle smoky edge to it. There's chunky dry peat, a little chilli spice, and sugar-topped baked fruit. The finish is medium length, and is gently peaty & spicy, with more of that glazed ham and dried herbs. Lovely stuff. Definitely sweeter than your typical Caol Ila, in fact I think it's in a similar vein to the excellent Distiller's Edition official bottling (which is finished in Moscatel sweet fortified wine casks), which is pretty high praise! As such it's also quite different to the other G&M Caol Ilas I've tasted, sweeter of course but also a little less peaty, and perhaps more refined and elegant. Very, very good stuff. These guys certainly know what they're doing!
Overall, all four of these whiskies made for an interesting exploration into cask and wood influence, across a range of quite different 'base' spirits. None had a massively overt cask influence, and none had any one particularly dominant note, which of course is what Gordon & MacPhail aim for: well balanced, subtle, flavourful and drinkable whiskies. They're certainly one of the more consistent independent bottlers out there, and thanks to the brilliant efforts of their Australian importer Alba Whisky, we residents of this great southern land also have access to a good range of their bottlings! And that's not something that can be said as often as I'd like!
Thanks very much to Gordon & MacPhail and Ian McKinlay for the sample pack, and for helping me tick some new distilleries off the list, and thanks for doing such great work!