Say you’re a big drinks conglomerate, newly possessed of a distillery or several, and looking to launch a single malt. Your options with which to dumb down its singularity are simply multitudinous. A heaving smorgasbord of potential dilutions, not the least of which is dilution itself.
You could slosh in caramel colouring by the gallon – hey, works for coke, right? You could filter it to within an inch of its life; chill-filtration’s the obvious answer, but other character-cutters are available. Shorten fermentations, widen cuts, buy barley for cost-efficiency; I could go on, but you read our blends diatribe a month ago, didn’t you? It’s mostly in there. (If you didn’t read it, lengthen your coffee break by a few minutes. The link’s above, you know what to do.)
Of all these aids to innocuity, the one I understand most is bottling at 40%. Personally I tend to sniff at the minimum strength stuff – I expect you do too. But when I force whisky on my friends, the loudest and chiefest objection is that it’s just too damn boozy. So on that score, large companies, I hear you. Can’t start ‘em on the hard stuff; you need a gateway. Just ask any of the chaps in blacked-out cars outside my old university halls. (The fast food deliveries went to the same place, which nearly got me into no end of trouble once. I’d only wanted a burger.)
But when the totality of this anodyne assortment is brought to bear on a single whisky, particularly one bottled from less-than-active casks, and with the sulky sheen of adolescence still on it, the results can be rather homogenous. And the packed lines of entry-levels on supermarket shelves turn into the crowd outside Brian’s window shouting in unison “yes, we’re all individuals”. (Monty Python; do keep up).
Today’s whisky is the antithesis of that. Single cask, uncut, unfiltered, un-mucked-about with. As single as it gets. As single as … no, can’t finish that analogy without coming off far too self-deprecating.
It’s from Distillerie Warenghem, who have been popping out spirits for a hundred years, and whisky for twenty, chiefly under their Armorik single malt brand. They’re based in Brittany, itself a rather singular place. It takes some chutzpah to be a place in France with a name that sounds a bit like ‘Britain’. Or rather some chutzpah, which is French for chutzpah.
The British connection comes, apocryphally, from Brittany’s invasion c.385AD by a Welsh chap named Conan Meriadoc. He’d helped a chum become (briefly) Emperor of the Western Roman Empire; a fellow by the name of Magnus Maximus, which is about as compensating-for-something as it gets. MM got knocked on the head shortly thereafter, but not before he’d thanked Conan for his help by saying “go forth and conquer where ye will.”
Conan and his merry men promptly trotted off to Armorica, renamed it ‘Brittany’, chopped all the men into tartare and, depending on which version you read, lopped out the tongues of all the women so as to kill off their language. Imagine that. One moment you’re surrounded by the world’s most mellifluous mother tongue, the next all you hear for the rest of your life are yobbish barbarians who can’t get past a double-L without hacking up a lung.
And 1600 years later they set up Armorik.
I’ve dipped my toe into Armorik a fair few times now – not literally of course, that would be vulgar – and in complete honesty I’ve struggled to nail down an exact sense of what I think the ‘house style’ is. Given the brand celebrates its 20th this year, and is therefore on the older end of the new-wave whisky spectrum, you’d expect a statement of personality to have emerged. Perhaps I’ve not been looking hard enough. So many brands, so little attention-span. I rather liked their Dervenn, aged in new Bretonic oak, but besides that I’m short a Eureka moment.
Today’s whisky is a rather stupid one with which to try and get a sense of the plat du maison. It’s a single cask, and therefore the most inherently offbeat and eccentric that a whisky can get. This is the domain of the wonkish, of the desperate seekers of points of difference. Of the bibulers browbeaten by boring brands and in search of a flavour they haven’t sipped ad perpetuum.
Bottled after 13 years from a single Oloroso sherry cask. I assume it was refill, but Master of Malt weren’t letting on. It’s £72.83, which isn’t cheap, but isn’t insanely more than you’ll pay for other proprietary-bottled cask strength 13 year olds, and is considerably less than some. (Incidentally “cask strength” in this instance is 55.5% ABV.)
Armorik 13 Year Old 2002 (Cask 3260) – Review
Colour: Dull brass
On the nose: For a cask strength malt that’s spent 13 years in ex-Oloroso, the nose is rather weedy. Some sugary grassiness. Bruised apples and pears. Struck match sulphur, which I like less than Mark does. Little dabs of muscovado and sultana.
In the mouth: Palate is more expressive, and rather nicely weighted in terms of flavour-to-alcohol. There’s a certain almost-Springbankian diesel beside chewier notes of strawberry jam and fudge and orange rind. Fruity toffee and praline. More of that knocked about apple and some Victoria plums.
It’s not a sherry bomb, that’s for sure. And it’s not without its flaws. The nose is a bit of a wimp, and that sulphurous element doesn’t really do it for me. I’ve a notion it isn’t really meant to be there; that it comes from a flaw in the cask rather than from deliberate manipulation in the distillery.
But I don’t mind it. The palate’s a lot of fun. Sure, it’s dirty, but in a rather likeable way. A muddy centre ambling off the pitch with a broad grin and a broken nose. There’s definite character here; it isn’t boring. It makes me want to try more Armorik whisky.
We seem to be playing a bit of a game of Risk on Malt this year. Mark’s fortifying himself in Scandinavia; Justine, Jason and I have had a bit of a scrap in the Antipodes. Phil’s uprooted himself from Ireland; even Spain hasn’t been overlooked.
Yet France, the world’s biggest consumer of scotch, hasn’t had its own kit put under the Maltroscope. Further investigation warranted, I feel. I’ve been meaning to get to Brittany for the cider anyway. Hopefully by now they’ve stopped speaking Welsh.
Note: image pilfered from The Whisky Exchange.