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Sunday, 30 June 2019

Signatory Vintage Clynelish 21 Year Old Whisky Review!

Back after a few week's hiatus, with a cask strength Clynelish from Signatory's "Un-Chillfiltered Collection", bottled for The Whisky Exchange, fully-matured in a refill sherry cask!

I'm a fan of Clynelish's standard 14-year old bottling (reviewed here), and of the distillery's waxy & fruity character. It's not often seen in sherry casks though, so this independent bottling from Signatory Vintage promises to be very interesting. Signatory is based in Pitlochry, around 90 minutes' drive north of Edinburgh, on the same site as Edradour Distillery. Both are owned by Andrew Symington and his brother Brian, who started Signatory in 1988, and purchased Edradour from Pernod Ricard in 2002 before consolidating everything on the one site. Signatory celebrated their 30th anniversary last year with the release of a number of very old single cask bottlings, such as a 35-year old Port Ellen and a 50-year old Bunnahabhain, which although extremely expensive are beautifully presented and highly desirable.

Highland distillery Clynelish isn't often seen in official bottlings, like many of Diageo's large workhorse distilleries there are only two regularly available expressions, a 14-year old (reviewed here) and the Oloroso sherry-finished and surprisingly scarce Distiller's Edition. Both are bottled at 46% ABV, which Diageo should be commended for, but if you're chasing a higher strength version you'll either need to find one of the bottlings from Diageo's annual Special Releases, which in Clynelish's case tend to be non-age statement bottlings at substantial prices, or you'll need to look to the independent bottlers. Companies such as Gordon & MacPhail, Cadenheads and of course Signatory Vintage will often have cask strength Clynelish bottlings available, since the goal of any independent bottler should be to either showcase distilleries that don't often get the chance to shine on their own, or to showcase more common distilleries in different styles, whether by age, cask type or more natural presentation, or ideally a combination of the three. There are quite a few (relatively) new independent bottlers coming onto the market as well, but for various reasons some of their prices can border on the ridiculous, while the long-established companies mentioned above, among a few others, tend to keep things at a more reasonable level.

This bottling of Clynelish is a 21-year old single cask, exclusive to London's The Whisky Exchange, one of the largest physical and online specialist whisky stores in the world. Between their two locations in central London and their huge website they have a huge range of whisky, including a huge number of old & rare bottlings, and often a large range of exclusive bottlings, often of the single cask and cask strength variety. They tend to be of very good quality and generally sell at reasonable prices as well, but of course it's luck of the draw as to what will be available from the stores at any given time, and some bottlings sell out very quickly, although stock does tend to last longer in the physical stores than it does on the website. This Signatory bottling of Clynelish was hand-picked to mark the 2018 10th anniversary of The Whisky Show, an annual London whisky expo put on by The Whisky Exchange and parent company Speciality Drinks, who are also behind the Elements of Islay, Port Askaig and Single Malts of Scotland independent bottling labels. It was distilled in December 1996, matured in a single refill (presumably Oloroso) sherry cask, number #11390, and bottled in August 2018 at a cask strength of 52% ABV. Naturally (pun intended) it's non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and 517 bottles were released, now completely sold out. The sample for this review came from a private swap with a generous fellow whisky geek. Tasting time!

Clynelish 21-year old, Signatory Vintage, 52%. Brora, Scotland.
Bottled for The Whisky Exchange / 10th Anniversary of The Whisky Show. Distilled 12/1996, bottled 8/2018, matured in refill sherry butt, cask #11390. 517 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Amber.

Nose: It does have that Clynelish waxy and floral fruit note, but there's also quite a lot of dry Eastern spices, a lot of orange peel and some woody cologne (aftershave). There's also some dried apricot and nectarine, plus a bit of peach, a little salt, and an interesting meaty fatty-ness, like some cold grease on last night's roast, or even lard. Very interesting!

Texture: Medium weight, oily, warming and spicy but not hot or harsh.

Taste: Spicy and quite mineral to start, warm wood spices with dark chocolate syrup / dessert sauce, more orange peel, and more dried apricot & peach. That waxy note that we all expect from Clynelish is there but it's surprisingly subtle, it's only in the background here. Some white pepper too behind that dried fruit & citrus.

Finish: Medium length. The white pepper continues, as does the stone fruit, and that greasy fatty-ness from the nose comes out in force here. That turns into a clean vegetable oil, plus some marzipan (sweetened almond paste) and a mouth-watering mineral salinity.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: A very interesting, maybe even challenging, dram here! It's not what I expected really, there's more wood spice, more orange and certainly more fatty-ness, but it definitely works. There's quite a lot going on in this whisky, especially on the palate & finish, and it does take extra concentration to decipher. That greasy fatty note is particularly interesting, although it could well be an evolution of the Clynelish waxy character, since this is the oldest Clynelish that I've tasted to date. So, a tasty and interesting whisky as we can expect from The Whisky Exchange, and also Signatory Vintage, of course!

I still think Clynelish is one of the best examples of a Northern Highland malt, particularly when sampled at cask strength like this bottling, although I can't help but wonder if an ex-bourbon cask at this age and strength may have shown off that character a little better. Which means I now need to hunt down one of those! Although comparing a single cask whisky to another doesn't always work, they're totally unique, which is all part of the fun.


Sunday, 9 June 2019

Southern Coast Distillers 7 Year Old Whisky Review!

A very rare single cask from an Australian distillery that closed over six years ago, selected by & bottled for one of Australia's best online whisky stores, The Odd Whisky Coy.

Southern Coast Distillers was founded circa 2004 in the Adelaide suburb of Welland, in South Australia. The distillery was setup as a part-time venture, but closed in December 2012 after a falling out between the three business partners. The distillery was housed in a flagpole factory of all things, using two small copper pot stills that were built by the owners themselves, and it was operating on an extremely small scale, filling less than a dozen casks per year. Those casks were usually re-coopered fortified wine casks and were generally small in capacity, at around 50-litres or so, which when combined with the Adelaide conditions meant the whisky could be ready for bottling in as little as two years. In fact their whisky was seldom older than five years of age. Interestingly a small portion of their malted barley was lightly peated, but I can't find any word on where that malt or the peat itself came from. Southern Coast was reborn in 2013 as the Tin Shed Distilling Company, with one of the original partners, Ian Schmidt, taking the helm. The resulting whisky is now sold under the Iniquity brand, which is very widely acclaimed.

South Australia now has a few whisky distilleries, including the excellent Fleurieu Distillery in Goolwa and the mysterious and sporadic Smith's Angaston whisky, plus quite a few gin producers, which is - unfortunately - still the flavour of the month in Australia. The state is home to some of Australia's most famous wineries in the Barossa Valley & McLaren Vale, including famous names in fortified wine like Penfolds, Seppeltsfield and Grant Burge, producing large amounts of Australian port (officially named Tawny) and Australian sherry (officially named Apera), among many other types. The state is also home to one of the country's largest breweries, Coopers (who already supply malt to Starward), and smaller and more recent additions like Pirate Life. So there's certainly no shortage of barley around, and there's certainly no shortage of wine casks around, and the local climate has a wide temperature swing with hot summers and mild winters, and relatively low humidity year-round. Oh and one of Australia's major cooperages is located a short drive south of Adelaide. Sounds like a good recipe for a good whisky region!

The single malt we're looking at today was distilled in 2009 under the original distillery name and the original owners, and is from a single cask that was selected by & bottled for Graham Wright's The Odd Whisky Coy, which is a hidden gem of an online whisky retailer also based in Adelaide, offering a very extensive range of international and Australian whiskies including many older bottlings. Graham has been part of Australia's whisky scene for a very long time, in addition to his extensive wine background, and he provides excellent service to boot. This Southern Coast Distillers bottling was matured for seven years in a single French oak Port cask, cask number #14 (told you it was a small operation!), and was bottled at 50% ABV with no chill filtration or added colouring. I couldn't find word on the number of bottles released, but it will be well under 200, particularly considering that seven years of maturation through Adelaide's hot & dry summers. In fact there are only a few Australian whiskies that are aged for much longer than this on a regular basis, even when matured in milder climates. The sample for this review came from a generous fellow whisky geek who had this bottled stored away for quite a while, since it it sold out some time ago. So you may have to live vicariously through me for this one...

Southern Coast Distillers 7-year old for Odd Whisky Coy, 50%. Adelaide, Australia. 
Distilled 2009, matured in a single French oak Port cask, bottled 2016. Distillery closed 2012. Natural colour, non-chill filtered. 

Colour: Dark rust red. 

Nose: Musty & port-y, oaky, and very Australian. Loads of milk chocolate and dark fruit syrup, spiked (soaked) raisins and some dried orange. Eucalypt forest, spicy oak, a flash of melting butter and some spent coffee grounds around the edges. 

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, loads of port influence, and a slight touch of heat. 

Taste: Quite intense up front, with more dark fruit syrup, spicy charred oak, milk chocolate and a little peppermint. The eucalypt forest is still there too, drying and slightly earthy. 

Finish: Short-medium length. Fades quite quickly, most of the flavour is up front. There's more spice here, and more oak but it turns lightly bitter and chalky early on. Finishes with some dry cough drops and dark grape must. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: An enjoyable dram, with loads of cask influence. I can see why Graham chose to bottle this at 50%, if it was much higher in strength it would probably have been very port-heavy, and very intense. Perhaps too intense. And it's not exactly shy as it is! This is a very Australian whisky, and it won't be unfamiliar to fans of the style. Big, intense, cask-driven but still characterful and enjoyable. And that eucalyptus note is often found in some of the best examples, particularly at high strengths. It actually is reminiscent of the Australian bush, as strange as that sounds. 

It may seem like a bit of a shame that Southern Coast shut down, and it's definitely a shame that it was a messy situation that hasn't been fully resolved yet, but from all reports the distillery that rose from the ashes, Tin Shed, is only going from strength to strength. Another feather in South Australia's food & drink cap, then. I'm going to have to get down there and take a closer look!


Sunday, 2 June 2019

Clynelish 14 Year Old Whisky Review!

My first Clynelish review, and it's been a long time since I last tried their flagship bottling. This should be interesting!

As part of Diageo's 'Classic Malts' range, this one is a bit of an outlier. How so? Well rather than being bottled at the minimum alcoholic strength of 40% or the slightly better 43% like most of its stable-mates, Clynelish 14-year old weighs in at 46%. Although there's no official word on chill filtration it does seem to be less affected by that nasty process than the others, and it also appears to have slightly less added colouring than many of its siblings. Which is a very good thing! It's said to be a coastal Highland whisky, and it is actually lightly peated, but don't go expecting an Islay or Island-style experience here. In fact experienced peated whisky drinkers will find it difficult to detect any trace of peat whatsoever. There's plenty of flavour, but it's lighter in character than some may expect when they read that description. Clynelish single malt is actually known for a waxy note that is attributed to oily build-up in their feints receiver, the contents of which is fed back into the spirit stills during distillation after being combined with the incoming low wines from the wash stills. They discovered the cause when the receiver was emptied and thoroughly cleaned out in the past, resulting in the spirit losing its waxy qualities. Since then when cleaning time comes around the contents are tipped back into the feints tank after cleaning.

Clynelish Distillery is located in the remote village of Brora near the north-east coast of the Scottish Highlands, around 75 minute's drive north of Inverness. The word Clynelish translates roughly to "grassy slope" in Gaelic, referring to the slight hill that the distillery sits on. The label on this whisky states "originally established 1819", which is technically correct, but things aren't quite that simple. The original Clynelish distillery did open in 1819, but the current and much larger distillery opened in 1968 across the road from that original site, with the original then closing for around a year before re-opening, and later being re-named as Brora Distillery. The now-legendary Brora closed in 1983, alongside quite a few others under the same owners (United Distillers/DCL/Diageo), although the buildings still stand and some of the warehouses are used to mature casks of modern Clynelish. From 1969 to 1973 Brora produced heavily-peated whisky to satisfy the blenders' demand while Islay was in severe drought and Caol Ila was being rebuilt (otherwise Brora may have never existed), while from 1973-1983 it produced a mix of lightly-peated and unpeated spirit. To date I've only had the privilege of tasting a couple of Brora single malts (one example reviewed here), both of which were phenomenal and deserving of the cult status that the name enjoys. In late 2017 it was announced that Brora, along with Port Ellen on Islay, would be re-opened, with both expected to start producing again in late 2020.

The modern Clynelish is quite a large operation, with ten washbacks, six stills and an annual production capacity of nearly five million litres per year. Around 95% of that production goes into various Johnnie Walker blended whiskies, particularly Gold Label. The current flagship 14-year old single malt that we're looking at today first appeared back in 2004, and like many of Diageo's malts there isn't much information on cask type, chill filtration or colouring available. In my opinion there's definitely some added colouring at work here, and possibly a little chill filtration, but certainly to a lesser extent than many other whiskies. I would assume it to be matured in refill ex-bourbon casks, but there are rumours of a few refill ex-sherry casks being in the mix as well. This expression retails at around $100 AUD here in Australia, which is quite reasonable for a 14-year old single malt at 46% ABV. Let's get to it!

Clynelish 14-Year Old, 46%. Brora, Scotland.
Unknown maturation, suspected lightly chill filtered & light added colouring.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Very soft to start with, with powdery red apples and a little chalk dust. Opens up with some craft glue & warmed honey, and a slight nip - but only if you get too eager. With more time, soft malt and honey and a light whiff of rock salt. 

Texture: Light-medium weight, soft and waxy with a drying salty tang.

Taste: Surprisingly gentle on entry, with more honey, soft dusty malt, waxy red apples and hints of banana & melon. Then a nice pinch of salt, drying and slightly astringent, with a very tiny puff of earthy peat underneath. 

Finish: The salt continues, with a few drying spices thrown in. Warm (not hot) cinnamon, and a touch of white pepper. Then the malt returns, but it's damp now, and hints of those waxy red apples following behind. 

Score: 3 out of 5. Almost a 3.5 though. 

Notes: A very enjoyable whisky, easy drinking with a few nice points of difference setting it apart. A great example of a northern Highland whisky here, and in fact it's definitely in the realm of an ex-bourbon cask Old Pulteney or maybe even a Highland Park without that Orkney peat. Although I was quite surprised to find that tiny puff of peat in this Clynelish, I don't remember encountering that on previous experiences with this whisky. This malt could easily square up to all of the core expressions from those aforementioned further-north distilleries, most of which are bottled at 40-43% and at younger ages or with no age statement, so there's very good value for money on offer here.

It may not be the most complex malt out there, but for a core / flagship expression, and considering that price point, it'd make for a great daily drinker. And huge kudos must be given to Diageo for bottling this Clynelish 14-year old at 46% and holding back, at least partially, on the colouring and chill filtration. They could've easily bottled it at 43% with added colouring and chill filtration, as is the case with most of the Classic Malts range, and it probably wouldn't have affected total sales to any massive extent. But they chose to present this particular whisky more naturally, and we should be thanking them for it!