Duty free shopping is an unusual experience these days. There I was, all excited to be on my holiday and making the most of tax-free whisky, when I strolled into the duty free shop and was confronted with… well, a pretty bland selection, if I’m honest. The big brands – Johnnie Walker, Dalmore, Glenfiddich and so on – dominated the display sections, to the detriment of anything else. Duty free whisky had become little more than a glorified advert for those giants of distillation, a chance to put wares in front of millions of travellers.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike any of the above. Far from it. But I was hoping to see something that would appeal to my inner whisky geek. There were few gems, but rummage around and I could find one or two sparkling offerings – something of interest, something different. Uniqueness was, after all, what I’d been led to believe travel retail was all about: finding something fascinating that you couldn’t get in standard retailers.
One of those gems was the Auchentoshan Cooper’s Reserve. I’d been meaning to try more from this distillery, which for some reason often slips off my radar, but now was time to make amends.
Founded on the outskirts of Glasgow in the early part of the 19th Century (dates vary according to sources), and now owned by Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd, Auchentoshan is something of a curious distillery. Whereas most whisky makers distil their fermented mash twice – in two stills – in order to produce whisky, Auchentoshan introduces a third still to the process. This intermediate still ends up providing “the highest distillate of any single malt distillery in Scotland”. Basically, spirit comes out at 81% ABV, compared to about 68-71% that you find from other single malt distilleries. It’s worth adding that grain distilleries, which use a less pretty column still – or Coffey still, named after the Irish inventor Aeneas Coffey – end up with an eye-watering spirit of 94% ABV, before being diluted with water to go into casks. Check out the Auchentoshan website for full geekery on what they do themselves.
Auchentoshan was one of the few distilleries to have a proper travel retail range, which is what drew me to their bottles. The Cooper’s Reserve was the one that caught my eye. It was at the sweet spot of just under £70, which was the limit I set myself when passing through duty free. The Cooper’s Reserve has spent 14 years in American bourbon casks and Spanish Oloroso sherry casks, before being non chill-filtered and bottled at 46% ABV.
Colour: polished mahogany, heather honey. On the nose: the sherry notes and Spanish wood seems to show the most at first: raisins, figs, orange and dried spices perhaps. Almonds. Christmas cake. Think Glenfarclas 15 Year Old. Then pulling back you get this lovely citrus tang and an ever-so-slight brininess.
In the mouth: a perfect follow-through from the nose, though in small doses. Dates, plums, sultanas. It’s not intense, but rather a rush of gentle sweetness. It leans towards the heady kind that you get from honey. There’s a touch of creamy vanilla custard. Blood oranges. Toasted Marcona almonds. This hasn’t got a particularly thick or full texture, this one, and it comes just the faintest bitter-wood finish, but that’s being really picky.
It’s very pleasant. I can actually imagine this being a superb everyday dram – easy-drinking and very good for sharing. If you like the sherry-rich sweeter whiskies such as Glenfarclas or Dalmore, you’ll certainly want to give this a go when you’re on your way abroad.