Welcome to the final chapter for now in our mystery dram trio from the San Francisco Whisky Club. By chance potentially we’ve saved the best till last. As these were unlabelled samples its was purely luck of the draw as to what came bottom of the pile and already you’ll know what it is.
The trio in its entirety consisted of a lovely St Magdalene 1978 Waterloo Street Engineering and an EH Taylor Cured Oak release. This final whisky as with the others was tasted, noted and discussed before the big reveal. If you’d dropped in on one of my Instagram Live ramblings earlier in April you may have seen me trying this whisky for the first time and debating its qualities. What that blind tasting told me and onlookers was that it was old, not a modern style whisky, there was a peat smoke undercurrent but not robust and in-yer-face like today’s offerings. It certainly wasn’t 40% strength nor was it outrageously high in ABV. Speculating, I felt it was more coastal regional origins and with the level of soot and gentle peat, I suggested Talisker.
Not too bad this time around I guess. Although you’ll see from the tasting notes below I was also leaning towards a Gordon & MacPhail old style bottlings from the Connoisseur’s Choice range due to the wood management and strength. Again, reasonable and somewhat influenced by my recent forays into these older styles.
Ultimately what is the answer? Yes, its a Talisker 12 year old so this pre-dates the 10 year old that we still love and cherish today. Bottled by the Distillers Agency in Edinburgh for the Italian market, this dates from around 1973 and was an official bottling. The twist and interesting aspect overall here is that if correct, whisky history buffs will know that Talisker suffered a catastrophic fire in 1960, thereby closing it for 2 years. When the distillery reopened in 1962, the floor maltings had shut for good and a complete set of stills were created based on designs from the original versions and were no longer directly heated by coal fire. This move was to prevent a recurrence, as accounts tell us it was a valve on the number 1 spirit still in November 1960 that malfunctioned and the flammable liquid poured onto the furnace below. Note this wasn’t caused by distillery visitors with their cameras.
Back to this bottling and it doesn’t take a genius IQ to speculate therefore that what we have here is older than 12 years to support the release. It won’t be younger, which leads to the conclusion that this Distillers Agency release features pre-fire or 1950’s distillate Talisker. In other words, this is a real treat, liquid history and a unicorn whisky.
Talisker itself remains a wee favourite of mine. Arguably it is testing the patience of many with its onslaught of No Age Statement whiskies. Regulars will recall my landmark-grab theory during Talisker Skye review. We’ve endured the Talisker Neist Point that is frightfully overpriced and the solid if unspectacular Talisker Distillery Exclusive. Even during our Talisker vertical tasting there was a sense that the 10 and 18 year olds just offer ideal sweet spots for this distillery.
Prior this writing this review I had been settling down with the latest Springbank Local Barley 10 year old release and speculating on how the subtle regional differences between distilleries and areas of Scotland have been eroded over time. Sadly it’s true. The use of local barley and floor maltings provides the very foundation of a let’s say house style? With Talisker losing its floor maltings following the fire this prompted further investigation. I know the Isle of Skye very well, having visited it at least once a year for the past decade. It can be a harsh environment similar but not as extreme as Orkney. This suggested that crops grown on Skye if indeed successfully, would have to be a very low yield and ancient style of grain such as bere barley. However, Talisker relied heavily on its pier that was constructed in 1900. It still stands just down the road from the distillery. Here cask and supplies would have been transported in both directions. As Skye refused to play ball with a sustainable crop, this would have included barley for the floor maltings.
Potentially this could have been crops from all over the world including as far away as Australia. However even back then, Scottish barley was a prized commodity and favoured. Not necessarily due to its quality, but rather as a buffer in case import taxes and transportation costs rose. If this did indeed transpire, then a distiller with links to Scottish farmers, built up over years of support would be in a strong position. Hence the barley that forms this basis of this whisky is likely to feature a little bit of everywhere. So not exactly a local barley, but at least traditional floor malting brings a collective sustenance to the foundation.
Talisker 12 year old Distillers Agency – review
Colour: a weather-battered varnish.
On the nose: well it noses old, it just has that old funkiness and a touch of the Gordon & MacPhail wood management programme. There’s a subtle redness with rhubarb, cranberries, pomegranate and smoked cherries. There’s a layer of tobacco and its a really elegant elder statesman of a whisky, or at least that’s what I’m feeling. Also present is a tangible decaying autumnal quality almost a salty mossiness, raisins and dark chocolate. A touch of coffee roast, pears, orange pips and yet there’s still that redness vibrant throughout. Excellent balance with the cask, some cinnamon bark and then sweet soot.
In the mouth: light, elegant. Dried orange alongside milk chocolate with spent tobacco and a layer of delicate smoke. Some chalk, an enduring finish that showcases wood spice before dissolving into vanilla marshmallows. A sweet almost beyond its best cinnamon, a drying oaky quality midway before it comes back strongly with char, raisins, plums and sticky figs.
An excellent Talisker and a style sadly lost to time. A real time warp lure with that lightness harbouring an amazing barrage of flavours. This is the older style. Not necessarily wood driven or micromanaged to within a 1cl of its life. Everything comes together naturally and the actual experience itself is sublime. My thanks to the SFWC and hopefully we’ll meet up Westside in 2019.