Scotch is simmering nicely right now, with new additions to the pot as distilleries come online and bottle their first youthful whisky. The main bulk of the components are delivered by the big names you’ll find at most supermarkets. A few twists and turns are thrown in for good measure – meaning the lesser-known oddities. But what about Wolfburn?
This is the overriding question whenever I sit down with a whisky from this distillery. So far Wolfburn has failed to grasp the initiative and truly deliver a knockout whisky. Each time I have a dram or stumble across its wares at a whisky festival, the sense of anticipation is fairly flat. Time and experience have confirmed that Wolfburn makes a solid if unspectacular spirit and that’s the end result in the glass.
That’s, unfortunately, the constant theme, as generally the releases are well presented and tick the boxes on strength, natural colour and non-chill filtration. Price wise as well, Wolfburn receives plaudits and a slap on the back. The distillery is trying to be loved. Except it all comes down to what’s in the glass and I find it fairly tepid and inoffensive.
The question is why exactly?
Perhaps it starts with not just the spirit itself, but as Adam and Mark exclaim the soil and the strain of barley? Just maybe, perhaps even, a possible root cause. I’ve always thought that such a northerly distillery should display a rugged and characterful spirit that will eventually come to life as whisky. Wolfburn seems to be more of a style of whisky designed by committee or a whisky consultant in all likelihood. Rather than pushing boundaries and maximising flavour it has chosen a fairly safe and pleasant voyage.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong in playing it safe when it comes to whisky. There’s a huge market for such wares dominated by Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Jura. And therein lies the problem for Wolfburn. It cannot hope to match the distribution or price point of such names with their goliath distilleries, huge marketing budgets and relationships with retailers. Smaller distilleries can beat the big guns on other fronts if they are smart. A whisky that showcases flavour above all, a handcrafted ethic or an unusual production process. The bottom line is a whisky that delivers a knockout experience – except Wolfburn has shown none of this.
Instead, we have some fairly safe variations on the main theme. Attempts that are fairly predictable and pedestrian. The debut Wolfburn single malt was bottled too young but in this day and age, but an expected release aimed more at the collector or speculator. The Wolfburn Aurora was a confused concoction of ex-bourbon, sherry and quarter casks that really didn’t showcase the distillery in any new light or challenge perceptions. More successful was the Wolfburn Morven that showcased a light youthful peat, but even then didn’t scream a rugged Highland style or unlock the door to hidden delights.
I’m not sure if it is tired casks or poor wood at the heart of the problem either. Weighing up the whole situation in my mind its likely to be a combination of all of the above plus the most vital ingredient of all. Patience. Yes, that simple commodity that delivers a fever to shareholders and accountants. I’ll give you another example in the form of Arran distillery. For many years a disappointment and mundane whisky. Hampered by the need to sell, which prompted an array of cask finishes. A scattergun approach to see if anything really stuck. Then at the end of some needless suffering, the spirit and whisky came good. The mid-teens and the passage of time confirmed and displayed the potential.
Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to say right now we have a great Wolfburn on our hands. I expect one day it’ll come close hopefully. I worry somewhat, about the future of distilleries that play things safe. The market continues to swell and eventually will burst its guts. The losers will be those with limited funds, an inflexible business plan and poor whiskies. Also dragged into the turmoil will be the distilleries and brands that produce uneventful and tepid whiskies. Now is the time to prepare the buoyancy aids in the form of whiskies that deliver and inspire.
This single cask was bottled to mark the 18th anniversary of the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar. Distilled in November 2014, before being bottled in February 2018. Cask 694 provided an outturn of 292 bottled at 51.7% strength. It’ll set you back £70 directly from the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar.
Dornoch Wolfburn 2014 Single Bourbon Barrel – review
On the nose: Wine gums and barley sweets, chocolate mint and an old-fashioned lemonade. A light honey follows and a sense of simplicity and youthfulness. Vanilla, cauliflower and some orange zest persist with a buttery pastry. With water more delicate fruits with apple, Kiwi and grapefruit appear.
In the mouth: More honey, a dull vanilla and white chocolate. Some cracked pepper, almonds and lemons but that’s your lot. With water vanilla marshmallows and pancakes.
Another meh whisky from Wolfburn. It’s neither here nor there in reality and clearly needs more time. Too soon to bottle, which is a common theme from this distillery you’ll have guessed by now. Even Dornoch it seems cannot find a great cask within the distillery as of yet. Maybe one day someone will, please?
Sample purchased at the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar to review.