When is a whisky not a whisky? Well, it’s easy to answer this question if you open the Scotch Whisky Association manifesto or golden rulebook. There are stringent rules laid down to govern Scotch whisky.
In terms of alcohol strength 40% represents the bare minimum and this has been harnessed by the major producers all too glad to sell you a bottle at the lowest possible strength. Yet what happens when a maturing spirit drops below that magical legal mark? It is a rarity nowadays in an era of computerised Scotch and detailed warehouse inventories and cask checks. However it can still happen as this Spirit of the Highlands release from the Whisky Broker shows.
This excellent independent bottler offers releases at affordable prices and has a track record with sub-40% spirit. Almost 2 years ago they released a 23 year old Macallan that had reached 34.9%, which you can read about here. Now we’re all set for a spirit from the Ben Nevis distillery that slipped under the radar for nearly 49 years! Consider how much a 49 year old whisky would cost nowadays? How about £25 for this unique experience?
I’m all for cask strength releases, but I also acknowledge that in olden times whisky was often bottled at lower strengths and today master blenders will water down the whisky to 20% and still be able to ascertain its characteristics. Enough of me for now, I’ll quote the bottle label which has all the details:
‘a vatting of 6 hogsheads distilled at Ben Nevis Distillery and filled on the 15th March 1966, these casks have lain untouched for 49 years, supplying the angels with more than their fair share in evaporation. Too low in strength to legally be called whisky, this spirit was bottled on 10th April 2015’.
Now to taste a spirit of this age is a unique opportunity and we know the distillery that produced it. I do have a soft spot for Ben Nevis distillery which is on the outskirts of Fort William. It is a rugged, overlooked and weathered distillery that is widely bottled by independent companies; I’m about to open the Lady of the Glen 16 year old from the distillery so watch out for that. Also the Whisky Broker has just released an 18 year old. They were good enough to include a 5cl miniature with every Spirit of the Highland purchase so if you wanted to save the 50cl bottle and still experience a taste then its possible.
Distillery: Ben Nevis
Distilled: 15th March 1966
Bottled: 10th April 2015
Strength: 29.5% vol
Outturn: 524 bottles + a 5cl miniature
Additional: vatting of 6 hogsheads
Price: just £25 for a 50cl (equivalent to £35 for 70cl), update 27/05/15; now sold out
Now for these tasting notes I poured 2 decent sized drams and covered the glasses like I always do. 1 had a splash of water and the other was experienced straight. Both were left to stand for a couple of hours; after all this spirit has waited for 49 years so you should show it a little respect and treat it accordingly. Like a steak you have to let it relax and breath a little.
Spirit of the Highlands Ben Nevis 49 year old – review
Colour: golden syrup
On the nose: more detailed than I was expecting as my preconception was just too much wood surely? Nope, a touch of wood polish, stewed tea, dark chocolate, coffee beans, resin, a beef stock cube and honeycomb.
A word of warning as it doesn’t tolerate much water if at all. This is a very delicate dram and is better almost 99.9% straight.
In the mouth: less detailed on the palate and again avoid the water where possible. More coffee again, bitter dark chocolate, a dash of vanilla and black pepper. A little bit of slightly burnt toast (in a good way) rounded off by raisins and molasses.
Overall this Spirit of the Highland is very fluid and ultimately smooth. It is a fine line between flavours and textures and this fella has slightly dipped onto the dark side of the whisky realm. Still, I actually enjoyed sitting down from it and excluding the alcohol strength I’ve tasted younger drams that are far more woody than this. A real talking piece and one to share with friends as you broaden your whisky/spirit experience.