When the February Cadenhead’s outturn was revealed, there was a clear whisky of interest. Oh sure, I guess, the list also had the small matter of the 30-year-old Bruichladdich if you wanted to be one of the sheep. Baaa, follow the flock. However, to venture off track and step away from the congregation is part of the fun with any outturn.
It is a common message, which I utter on a regular basis: don’t follow the masses, and let your senses take you in another direction. The landscape of whisky is bountiful as well as full of hazards and false prophets. If you can, then, try before you buy, or seek out the opinions of others who have similar tastes or preferences. All of this brings us nicely to my own selection from the outturn, excluding a couple of purchases that might be appearing here at a later date. Much like the March outturn that offered a Miltonduff partially matured in a rum cask, there’s always something on the list that stimulates: the prospect of something new, the unknown, the danger, or simply the act of rebellion against a bland shelf of official releases. Be a whisky punk, I say.
Even so, I agree that there’s nothing immediately surprising about a 9-year-old Glenrothes bottled at cask strength. Admittedly, there is the novelty of this being a vatting solely of bourbon casks, as opposed to sherry upon sherry. In addition, there is the realisation that there’s very little chance this will be as poor as the newly launched Glenrothes Soleo Collection; there’s no fiddling or engineering here from Cadenhead’s. Bottled at cask strength, presented in its natural colour with no chill filtration, this is how the majority of whiskies should be presented, and not bottled at 40% strength, coloured, chill-filtered and shipped out with little information with an excessive price tag.
Oh yes, the strength. This was the initial attraction around this release when revealed. Bottled at a remarkable 65.3% strength, it was an eye-watering realisation on many levels. Firstly, I cannot recall the last time seeing something at this strength, and even moreso, after a cask vatting. In addition, it harks back to the Cadenhead’s cask strength green bottle era, when they bottled whiskies as a young age and robust levels.
Load up Google and punch in ‘new make spirit 63.5%’ and you’ll see a stream of releases from new distilleries who reduce and fill casks at this level. It is common practice and advice (from consultants) that this level works best for the distillery and the interaction with the cask—except lately, a cluster of distilleries are shunning this adopted practice and filling casks once again at a variety of levels and then seeing what happens. Bravo! More of this, please, and certainly a reason why I’m more excited about the future Glenallachie than the current Chivas foster parent we must endure in-between.
There isn’t a golden rule that a cask must be filled with spirit at a certain strength; other than it has to be above 40% to a certain extent, otherwise, after three years, you may just have a spirit that you cannot legally call whisky. It’s a fascinating area to read up on when you start looking into the effects of filling strength. The chemical breakdown of compounds, due to reaction with water (or hydrolysis, to give it a fancy name) is key. Too high a strength, and the interaction with the cask, which extracts sugars, tannins and acids will be affected. The end result is that whisky flavour will be diminished, or at least impacted. Too low a strength, and these vital extractions and chain reactions won’t take place, or will be on a reduced scale.
The other disadvantage of not reducing the spirit to 63.5% before filling a cask, is that it will result in a slower maturation. Not an ideal or welcome scenario for many of these new distilleries that are so eager to bottle at the three-year benchmark. To reduce a spirit, a distillery is free to use distilled water or if they are confident of their supply, water from the source. Either way, such a step does incur a cost, and means a large quantity of water must be kept on-site or made available. This partially explains the centralisation and filling of some casks from the corporate giants. Other distilleries may have filled at higher strengths simply because they had no facilities to water down the spirit.
This practice has diminished in recent times, as is the case with most things whisky-related when it comes to efficiency. An interesting caveat is that towards the end of their lifespans, Brora and Port Ellen filled casks without diluting the spirit. A cost-cutting exercise, it showed how much the then-owners (a forerunner of the one that is now gladly reviving them) valued these distilleries, but by accident, meant these casks were ideally suited to longer periods of maturation. And we all know how those whiskies turned out…
Cadenhead’s Glenrothes-Glenlivet 2009 – review
Colour: White grapes.
On the nose: A citrus zing and fruity greets you followed by a very fresh vanilla and lemon oil. Nougat, white pepper and a touch of incense. Mace followed and buttery Scotch pancakes and peeled apple skin. White chocolate and sherbet round off a fun 9-year-old. The addition of water reveals jelly fruits and a sparkle. Canteen sugar cubes and memories of Florida limes.
In the mouth: Creamy and oily, green olives and candied lemon peel. At cask strength, this lacks hotness underlining how well made the Glenrothes is. Pineapple cubes, sugar puffs, apples, a New York Cheesecake and dried reeds. It takes water well believe it or not! Vanilla marshmallows and almonds arise but little else.
This Glenrothes is a fun and entertaining whisky. A tad youthful, yes, but confident and drinkable at cask strength – not that I’d recommend too much of it!
It’s also priced accordingly and a talking piece with the filling strength and shunning of sherry. My fingers are crossed that in the coming years we have more distilleries experimenting with their filling strengths. Only then can we open, explore, share and debate the end result.