Let’s talk about a whisky from Willowbank, otherwise responsible for the Lammerlaw or Milford whiskies hailing from New Zealand. In geographical terms this distillery was about as far off the map as you can go. Literally dropping off the globe axis making it at one time the most southerly distillery in the world.
Where else to start our sad Willowbank tale, but right at the beginning? Pull up a chair and get comfortable as we journey back in time. Firstly, I’ve found the history of Willowbank to be rather confusing and sketchy, so apologies if our tale turns into a fictional epic.
The Willowbank distillery was established in 1974 by the Baker family in the town of Dunedin. It proved an initially fruitful enterprise with local releases named 45 South and Wilsons doing well enough to attract the interest of corporations. Entering the frame in the 1980s was Canadian giant Seagrams who rebranded the distillery output under the name of Lammerlaw – after a nearby mountain range. Whisky in the late 1990’s wasn’t the cash cow it is today and Seagrams sold the distillery to the Australian brewery giant Fosters, who seemingly had little appetite for Willowbank. Shortly afterwards in 1997, the distillery closed its doors and the stills were sold off to a Fijian rum distillery. The reputation of Willowbank lived on under the guidance of the Preston family, with the release of the Milford range in 2004, which offered a variety of age statements until 2012 when it was discontinued.
Around 200 barrels were re-racked by the Prestons in 2008 from their original hosts of American ex-bourbon casks, these were transferred into French oak New Zealand wine barrels. Bottled in 2016 as the Omaruvian 16 year old DoubleWood, it’s possible that this Boutique-y release enjoys a similar heritage but that’s speculation on my part. The Omaruvian comprised of 70% Willowbank and the remaining 30% being made up of grain whiskey, unlike this Willowbank release that is a single malt. In 2009, the Willowbank barrels were put up for sale at auction. The newly formed New Zealand Whisky Company purchased the remaining 80,000 litres. Led by Greg Ramsay who had previous experience with Nant distillery prior to this rescue, these 443 barrels had been left in an old aircraft hanger. Now, they’re housed in a properly bonded warehouse in a coastal location.
Priced at £143.95 this Willowbank is a Batch 1 release with an outturn of 307 bottles at 53.8% strength. Likely matured partially – rather than fully – in a red wine cask, the keen-eyed readers will do the maths and wonder how this whisky is only 17 years old when the distillery closed in 1997? Good question, it’s likely been in a neutral vessel and frozen in time before being plucked by Boutique-y for this release.
UPDATE: we were contacted by the Boutique-y in June 2018 who had just amended the details regarding the cask contents which were as follows:
As an independent bottler, we work hard to make sure there aren’t mistakes on our bottle labels, but we’ve just discovered an error on the Willowbank 17 label – we’ve called it “Single Malt Whisky” when it’s actually a much rarer beast – a ‘Single Blended Whisky” – meaning that it comprises both malt whisky and grain whisky from the same distillery (hence the term ‘Single Blend’).
In this case, it’s a blend of 70% malted barley, and 30% unmalted barley, both distilled in pot stills (which is extremely unusual for grain).
So in essence this is along the lines of the Omaruvian release.
Back to the original review: Price comparisons are difficult as Willowbank’s are few and far between. The usual scaling up to 70cl reveals an asking price of £201.50 so this isn’t necessarily a cheap release, but it is from a closed distillery situated on the other side of the world. For Malt it always comes down to the liquid itself and whether we’d fork out our own hard earned cash for a bottle…
Willowbank 17 Year Old – review
Colour: a glorious dark ruby.
On the nose: a gorgeous mix of resin, sultanas, all-spice, dark chocolate and honey. Cinnamon buns, plum jam, beeswax, orange peel and some cherry menthol. It’s the balance that captivates and is one you can delve into and appreciate just like those glorious Macallan’s from the 1960’s. Each time there’s something new to discover, with the spicing particularly expertly judged. All-spice, nutmeg all flow and then a delightful tobacco note with maple syrup.
In the mouth: oh the sweetness lands with aplomb and then that funky texture before a caressing dry finish. More of those cherries, tobacco and the strawberries come bursting through with some blueberries thrown in as well – no wonder the sleeve is a bunch of plump grapes – it’s a fruit explosion. Cinnamon bark, raspberry jam, treacle and dark brown sugar. This could have been overly sweet or too dry, but it’s a finite balance
I’m actually stunned and lost for words with this release. The team at Malt will tell you that this doesn’t happy very often. The majority of the red wine casks I’ve had over the years deliver a certain robust harshness complete with tannins. With this Willowbank such a detrimental feature is vanquished and instead you have this glorious fruity bouquet. If you purchase one whisky this year then make it this Willowbank – you won’t regret it. After enjoying this sample I did exactly that and I may purchase another soon…
My thanks to the Boutique-y Whisky Company for the sample and photograph
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