One vertical tasting I’ve been considering piecing together for Whisky Rover is the iconic White Horse blended whisky. I do have some samples somewhere around here, but its very much a work in progress. Then this 1940 example arrives as a kind gift from a friend and it is screaming open me due to the reduced fill level.
When faced with bottles like this I find that you can keep the bottle on the shelf and watch it slowly depreciate in term of contents and value. That’s not for me. Instead the bottle needs to be opened which is a risk I admit, but one worth taking for the experience. It’s all part of the whisky journey. From 1940 until 2016 there will be a change of characteristics, yes due to the reduced level but also that mythical bottling aging effect. I wish there was some research conducted into the mystery as I do subscribe to its existence.
The blend was registered in 1891 by Sir Peter Mackie, however its roots go back to 1883 and James Logan Mackie. The Mackie family owned the White Horse Inn in Edinburgh’s Canongate situated on White Horse Close – this still exists today and is well worth a visit. It is here that white palfrey had carried Mary Queen of Scots to and from the Palace of Holyrood. In later years it was also the starting point of the long journey by coach to London, which you can see from the bottle label (weather permitting), took 8 arduous days.
The Mackie family co-owned Lagavulin distillery along with Captain Graham from 1883. Peter Mackie had served an apprenticeship at Lagavulin before replacing James as the head of the family firm then known as Mackie & Co. It is Peter who is recognised with having the foresight of brand awareness and registering the White Horse name. He became known as relentless Peter as he built the brand. Like many whisky barons he seems to have been a character, perhaps enhanced by tales and gossip like James Buchanan and Alexander Walker.
One unknown quote describes him as one third genius, one third megalomaniac and one third eccentric. His Glasgow office featured 2 notices that serve as words of wisdom take nothing for granted and honesty is the best policy. He was a prominent critic of the government due to his support of the Tory party.
In 1890 Peter Mackie went into partnership with Alexander Edward to build a distillery at Craigellachie. He was also ahead of his time by campaigning for a higher standard of whisky and preaching the values of longer maturation. Peter also established the legendary Malt Mill at Lagavulin in 1908 using old distillery buildings. The concept was to follow traditional illicit distillation methods used on Islay prior to the arrival of industrial distilleries (I wonder what he would have made of distilleries today?), these included smaller coal fired stills and the exclusive use of peat in the haircloth floored kiln. I have read suggestions that heather was added to the mash as well! Malt Mill also had its own maltings and 2 exclusive wash backs, whilst using the Lagavulin mashtun. There was a commercial reason for its establishment as in 1907 Mackie had lost the sales rights to Laphroaig whisky and needed to make his own replacement.
Malt Mill was never bottled as a single malt although there is some debate regarding certain blends. However it was used in the White Horse recipe until it closed circa 1960 and was swallowed up by Lagavulin when the still room was rebuilt in 1962. The maltings were converted into a trade reception centre around this period ushering Malt Mill into the history books and legends. If you’ve seen the film Angel’s Share then you’ll recognise the name from the cask that prompted frenzied bidding.
By 1915, Craigellachie distillery was acquired and used in the White Horse blend. Peter passed away in 1924, when the firm was renamed White Horse Distillers Limited; a rare example of a company adopting a brand name. In 1927 the company joined the Distillers Company Ltd which adorns the cap of this pictured example. White Horse had doubled sales in 1924 by simply becoming the first whisky to introduce a screw cap rather than the traditional cork.
I love the styling of this bottle. Some White Horse bottles actually have the year of bottling making dating very easy, like above. Other bottlings have to rely on clues such as the mention of the ruling monarch that is found on the label. Here in addition to the date we know it was the era of by appointment to the late King George V. Such a term I’m told applies for a period of 5 years following the passing of the monarch. I’ve seen similar bottles but stating King George VI, thereby placing those bottles in the period from 1952-1957. I ‘m told from friends that White Horse releases prior to the 1970’s had some cracking Lagavulin in the recipe unlike today’s version which has very little Lagavulin if any. We know from the dating of this bottle that it’ll also contain Malt Mill, Caol Ila and at least another 36 distilleries if you believe the tales.
History lesson aside this is ready for opening and a moment of discovery. I have posted a couple of videos on my Instagram Channel today (15th October 2016) of the bottle being opened in video one and video two. As I was asked on those posts how were the contents? I’ve saved my thoughts until now…
I do think we’re nosing a slightly bottle aged and oxygen affected whisky but much remains to saviour and appreciate. So over the course of a couple of days with different types of glasses, I compiled the following tasting notes. I’ve experienced some whiskies were the contents nosed ok but the liquid itself had turned, thankfully that’s not the case here. Although no alcohol strength is stated but it isn’t a robust dram in this form, more rather fragile.
Colour: golden syrup (and the liquid isn’t cloudy which is a good sign)
Nose: a refined gentleman in all honest there’s a hint of peat and an abundance of caramel and red berries but all modestly waiting their turn. Like most old blends its more layered and detailed than you expect from today’s offerings. Hemp initially and then when left in the glass for a period covered the saltiness shines through. Kippers? Oranges, spent matchsticks and I find there’s a noticeable use of sherry casks in this blend. A dusty prominence as well which just confirms the age and how long its waited to be experienced.
Taste: A real salty coastal undercurrent but upon the earthy light peat that has faded through the decades. The echo remains with a twist of black pepper, mixed herbs and just a hint of eucalyptus. An oily buttery texture after all these years is enjoyable as are the ripe bananas and mangos. The finish is one of caramel and then a pleasant earthiness that just reminds you Islay and the core distilleries in the blend. Returning to this after the contents had spent a few days in a new smaller bottle revealed more peat on the finish; a restoration in progress it seems.
Overall: yes its a little faded but the more time I spent with this 1940 White Horse, the more appreciative I became of what it had to say. A couple more years and it would have lost its voice – thankfully we’re able to appreciate the patience its displayed.