Whenever friends are up north on the whisky trail, I always suggest they drop by the Dornoch Castle Hotel to experience the bar run by Thompson brothers. Any trip to Glenmorangie, Dalmore, Balblair, Clynelish or Brora country isn’t complete without a few drams here.
The owners are very passionate about whisky (going so far to start their own distillery nearby) and giving punters the opportunity to experience rare and old drams for a reasonable price. You can sit beside the raging old fire whilst taking in an old Brora, or stick by the bar to chat with locals and other whisky enthusiasts. Sometimes you need to be dragged away from the bar as the assortment of bottles is bewildering including some marvellous labels from bygone eras.
During November, Dornoch held its first whisky festival and hopefully its the first of many. The brothers organised a Glen Ord tasting that you can read about on my Instagram feed here, as I did this live from the event. It’s easy to write off Glen Ord today which exists to serve the Asian market and their own palate. Yet the distillery is so successful they cannot keep up with demand. The Glen Ord tasting was a chance to roll back the decades through the distillery and experience a clutch of provoking whiskies lost to time. I certainly have new found appreciation for Glen Ord after this experience.
A real bonus of the bar is that if you’re driving our want to really sit down in your home environment with a dram then samples are available to purchase. These tend to be when bottles have been open for a while or the fill level is very low. I always travel armed with empty sample vessels and can call upon these to select bottles that may not be available in a decanted form.
With the help of Simon, selected the drams pictured above plus a few more for a special Christmas tasting right here. The two Balblair whiskies have gone towards my Balblair vertical due in January, but I replaced these with a Port Ellen and an old blend, which seems a fair swap.
Ainslie’s Royal Edinburgh 1963 – review
Ainslie & Heilbron, blended Scotch Whisky, 40% abv
Colour: warmed honey
Nose: a dusty dunnage warehouse initially, soon gives way to peanuts, almonds, Jacobs crackers, honey, smoked orange peel and tinned peaches.
Taste: this just glides effortlessly across the palate and feels stronger than 40% strength. More brine and sea salt than expected. Seasoning from the smoke and a touch of ham hock. Grapefruit, lime, caramel and walnuts.
For those unaware Ainslie & Heilbron owned the old Clynelish distillery which we today know as Brora. The name change took place in 1967 when the new distillery came online so we know this bottling from 1963 will incorporate some Brora, or old Clynelish. I’ve previously reviewed a 1972 bottling of this blend right here.
Cadenhead’s Brora 1982 – review
Cadenhead’s, bottled January 1996, 59.9% abv, single oak cask
Colour: olive oil
Nose: sherbet and icing sugar from the off. Apple pie with a hint of cinnamon amidst the poached fruit and short pastry. Lemon cuts through all of this nicely along with barley sugar drops.
Taste: bags of character here with more citrus fruits with peaches, lemons, mango and kiwi fruit stepping up. There’s a lasting legacy of smoke here that transmits into the finish with real poise.
Just 13 years old and this Brora has a lot to say. It just underlines how muted and shallow some whiskies are today in comparison. Memorable.
Signatory Brora 1982
Signatory, bottled 2002, cask number 273, 292 bottles, 58.6% abv
Colour: dried hay
Nose: a rich layer of honeycomb and flaked almonds. Vanilla, a little all spice and nutmeg going on in the glass. A light floral perfume note combined with some sherbet and old fashioned lemonade.
Taste: the lemons carry through to the palate. A little creamed sweet corn, porridge oats, melted butter, dark chocolate and that hint of smoke.
An interesting comparison to the previous dram being from the same year of distillation but a further 7 years maturation. Upon reflection whilst both are excellent I prefer the younger incarnation.
Gordon & MacPhail Glen Albyn 1963 – review
Gordon & MacPhail, 21 years old, 40% abv
Colour: cold coffee
Nose: a gorgeous sweet aroma of caramel and roasted walnuts rises out of the glass. Melted dark chocolate, black pepper, a sprinkling of oxo cube, raisins, damp wood, clove and fig.
Taste: a real nutty aspect with walnuts returning, roasted coffee beans, pine cones, chocolate digestive biscuits. A light smoky finish plays out a fine tune.
A higher strength would have been beneficial here without question. A dram I could have nosed for hours and the taste was almost a match. I need to track down a bottle of this!
Glen Ord 1998 – review
Bottled by Dornoch Castle in 2014, 42.5% abv, edition of 60 bottles
Colour: diluted lemonade
Nose: the sweetness of desiccated coconut, virgin olive oil and very fruity with green apples, ripe pears and honeycomb. Perfectly pleasant and characteristic of Glen Ord distillery.
Taste: very malty with hobnobs thrown in. White pepper, more apples, tinned pineapple chunks or possibly those pineapple chunks covered in sugar? A wee waft of smoke takes us into a gentle meringue finish.
On the back of my Glen Ord tasting at the Whisky Bar this slots into the line-up for that evening very well. I can appreciate why it was selected for bottling as its light and refreshing with plenty to say. Sadly its gone with a small outturn of 60 bottles, about 15 making their way to Japan and 20 plus being opened at the bar and the others sold on. Already looking forward to their next selection.
Hielanman Old Liqueur Scotch Whisky – review
Wm. Cadenheads, at least 8 years old, 70% proof
Colour: a rich tea biscuit
Nose: I’m finding this to be very light and refreshing. Oat cakes, cream crackers maybe verging on custard creams with the uprising of vanilla. On the fringes heather and black olives!
Taste: that refreshing aspect follows through; juicy fruits I’m thinking buckets of ripe apples, pears and some peaches. Some coconut flakes, hob nob biscuits, A little seasoning of salt and pepper in the finish.
A very rare and old bottle and Simon told me an interesting story about its origins. Marvellous opportunity to experience what is a superb blend that offers real character despite its lower strength. Quality.
SMWS Millburn 1983 87.8 – review
Scotch Malt Whisky Society, bottled 2005, 53.7% abv
Nose: initially sharp and punchy. Crushed almonds, lemon and vanilla essence. Then ginger, golden syrup, sugar work and wine gums.
Taste: more almonds, sponge cake and lemon coming through. With water ripe pears, apricot and a little hot in the finish with white pepper.
A historical whisky to experience and solid enough but nothing to proclaim a huge loss for on this basis.
Port Ellen 1979 – review
9th Official Release, bottled 2009, 57.7% abv, edition of 5916 bottles
Colour: golden caramel
Nose: that familiar vegetation of Islay rises up and strikes you down with a peaty blast. Then this fades away leaving pine cones, crispy bacon, porridge, salty sea spray from a coastal walk, cashew nuts in a hot wok that combines the oily feeling.
Taste: there’s a nice harmony here with the peat and juicy fruit aspect working well together. Arbroath smokies with a squeeze of lemon juice. A well fired aspect with a slab of beef and barbecued pineapple. A metallic twang, roasted black peppercorns and a gentle smoke linger in the finish.
Pretty good for a Port Ellen but I’m still not blown away fully aware of how many this was at retail before going supernova in the secondary market. A mighty whisky voyage in many respects and well balanced throughout.
That wraps up a fine tasting with Christmas coming early here, unquestionably. I’ll be back in the Dornoch vicinity early in 2016, so a chance to stock up on some other interesting drams for a follow up piece.