We’ve written before at MALT about the appeal of independently bottled single casks in their relationship to the officially-bottled ranges of well-known distilleries (though even among us, this is not uncontroversial). In opening such bottles we hope to strip away the layers of marketing, branding, packaging, PR, storytelling, and bollocks that accumulate around established distilleries. We do this in order to reach these malts in a more primary – if not primal – state.
We also have the chance to taste something before the master blender sets to work rectifying the flaws of one cask with another, revealing yet more flaws to rectify with additional casks ad infinitum. Rather than listening to this chorus of imperfect voices, we’ve got the opportunity to hear one soloist in isolation and, in doing so, to hopefully discover something intrinsic and elemental about a distillery’s character. With the doors of our perceptions cleansed of preconceptions (our own and others’), we endeavor to consider these distilleries as they are.
But what of those distilleries about which we’ve got almost no preconceptions whatsoever?
While there’s no paucity of information about Allt-a-Bhainne, it doesn’t seem to have a capital-I-“Identity” per se. It’s in the town of Keith in Speyside, southwest of Dufftown. You can easily Google the spirit and wash still capacity and shapes, if that’s your bag.
It’s been owned by Pernod Ricard since their 2001 purchase of Chivas Brothers, and they have utilized Allt-a-Bhainne’s four million liters of output almost exclusively as a blend component. The output of these unheralded stills has been mostly blended into Chivas Regal, where it competes for attention with Strathisla and an untold number of other malts. Even the supertasters among us would struggle to disentangle this slippery knot of whiskies in a way that would allow one to make a meaningful assessment of their merits on an individual-distillery basis, beyond an educated guess.
For most of the last 43 years, whisky drinkers have known Allt-a-Bhainne – by itself – only through independent bottlings, such as the Douglas Laing release reviewed here and the Berry Bros. & Rudd bottling reviewed here, both by Jason.
All that changed in September, when parent company Pernod Ricard announced the first release from Allt-a-Bhainne since the distillery’s construction in 1975. In case you missed it, the press release was immediately savaged in a mouth-puckeringly acerbic response from Dave Broom. The merits (or lack thereof) of the inaugural original bottling were detailed by Jason in his recent review.
Fortunately, I am as yet untainted by exposure to the official bottling, which has not reached U.S. shores (no rush, fellas). Thus, I am taking in this bottle as my proper introduction to Allt-a-Bhainne, one which will ideally allow the distillery to speak for itself, unsupervised by its owner’s well-meaning but historically inept corporate marketing department. Whether it has anything to say… we’ll find out the hard way.
I have covered the independent bottler Samaroli in a few reviews recently, for better and for worse. This bottle comes from the post-Silvano Samaroli era, in which the range has been expanded and the labels gussied-up by new head honcho Antonio Bleve. I found the last bottle of this on the shelf of a very elegant Mayfair wine and spirits store (yes, that one) for £60, which is an unheard-of bargain basement price in the world of Samaroli single casks.
This whisky was distilled in 2008, bottled in 2016 in a run of 490 bottles, at 43%. It is cask #900154.
Samaroli Allt-a-Bhainne 2008 – review
Color: Pale lemon meringue.
On the nose: Light-toned, though with a seriously dense malty-wineyness. Scents of freshly-cut marigolds and canned whipped cream. A very faint roasted note of mocha, creamy salted butter, and some fresh ginger.
In the mouth: Salted peanuts and the weakly sugary flavor of bubblegum. Milky texture and a burst of woody heat at midpalate, before this finishes with the chalky confectionary sweetness of Smarties and the deftest touch of powdered ginger and nutmeg.
This is alright, but not much more than that. At least it’s not a disaster like the OB. I like that it’s very subtle; I had to “reach” hard to get to some of the aromas and flavors. Alas, I am not able to put it into the “hidden gem of Speyside” category (including, for me: Braeval and Glenburgie) where Samaroli really works the cask selection magic.
I can see how, as a blender, this would be a useful arrow to have in the quiver. It’s a soprano, leavening some of the baritone and tenor influence of sherry casks and peated malts. More interesting as an academic exercise, this bottle is not a convincing argument that Allt-a-Bhainne warrants recurring consideration as a single malt.