It feels like only yesterday, when I wrote about the latest clutch of releases from the devilish pickers of casks up at Dornoch distillery. Ok, in reality it was July 27th, which confirms how quickly time flies when you’re having whisky fun and looking after a new born. Either way, we have 2 of their latest bottlings to strip down and give the final verdict on.
Having written so recently about their antics, allows me an open season perspective on this article. I’d like to talk about the naysayers and those ready to lambast the Scottish whisky industry for some of its output today. None more so than the irascible terroir zealots we’re seeing.
The fact is that most of the whisky drinkers out there don’t care about terroir, the crop, or whatever the farmer is doing today. A visit to the Waterford Instagram page and the number of followers will confirm this stark reality. Sponsored adverts, pictures of crops and farms will only really gain you traction amongst BBC Countryfile enthusiasts. Words, like photographs, only go so far. Even inviting out influencers can only go so far, as many of those who believe in terroir, or have an idea of what it represents, don’t follow the influencer brigade, or those that do; mostly don’t care.
Neither of these releases today proclaims anything about terroir. Nor should they. In fact, the blend is a total mystery and we can only guess the component distilleries and original source of the vatted cask itself. This could be deemed anti-terroir, but ultimately, who cares? The taste test and the lingering aromas are what captivates us all, as whisky drinkers. Whether that’s from a state-of-the-art factory in Ireland, or a decaying distillery on Speyside. I just don’t care, because you pay your money and you want an enjoyable experience.
I’ve had my issues with the Scotch whisky industry, as do many that linger on this site do as well. The lack of information, poor cask management, where did you get your crops from and the list goes on. The SWA sheltering behind EU legislation (Brexit will be interesting) and all manner of other criticisms. Then, you have the rise of the other countries who’ve turned a hand to distilling this fine spirit. Some with more success than others. Even the Japanese are capable of dropping a clanger at times and have some very grey areas of legislation regarding bottling of foreign whiskies. Going so far as to then be able to passing it off as Japanese in origin. I’ve had two bad European whiskies for every good one I’ve tried recently.
Whisky is not a pure science and nor is the outcome guaranteed. Sometimes there will be pitfalls and stumbles. I’d like to think of each knock and blemish as character building. These will be valuable lessons for any incoming distillery – regardless of where it is located – and should be heeded. Many are trying to gallop before they can crawl nowadays. If only it was that simple and if you become boastful and over-confident, then people will be waiting for the moment when you fall flat on your face.
All of this, revives memories of a wonderful interview I read recently with Martine Lafitte in the debut issue of Distilled magazine. A candid and forthright Armagnac producer, the article underlined many of the pressures these traditional producers face. I found it a remarkable piece for its honesty and intelligence. Many of her concerns around bureaucracy, bad practices, external economic pressures and loss of tradition can be easily placed into the Scotch whisky industry. So many memorable quotes, but this one did shine through:
‘when we say 1975 we refer to the year we harvested the grapes. We work the land for eleven months, and then we have four months to distil. They’re making whisky in Scotland all year long! It’s an industrial endeavour, don’t talk to me about vintages or terroir.’
Somehow, I believe that Martine would also pour scorn on the industrial scale of Waterford and other producers that showcase the terroir route today like Hillrock and Springbank to a lesser degree. Yet Scotland does have its own answer, one that Martine may appreciate in Daftmill, which adopts a similar seasonality approach and distils in the offseason when the fields don’t require as much commitment.
What Daftmill produces is very impressive and modest, without showboating or shenanigans. A refreshing change in today’s climate. Similarly, while Dornoch don’t grow their own crops, they do place emphasis on what’s going into the cask and packing it full of flavour prior to the wood interaction. They also go about their business in a modest fashion and independent releases such as these help keep revenues rolling until the right moment to bottle arrives. I’ve been fortunate to taste maturing Dornoch and it is impressive, which doesn’t come as a surprise when you’ve tried their new make. I’m also able to say it is more flavoursome than the 2 Waterford new makes I tried in 2017, simple as that. The dudes at Dornoch are confident enough in their efforts to let you purchase their new make. We await that final test; only when the inagural whiskies are released. Personally, we’re all winners if the whisky is good, regardless of the origins or methodology.
And what of today’s 2 distilleries? Ardmore is a survivor and has always delivered a tinge of highland peat as its signature. Until recently it stuck with many traditions before joining the modern age of production. Personally, it still represents a worthwhile destination for whisky and especially so of the independent sector, with this release costing £130. The dignified presence of a 38-year-old blend is to be respected, but its origins are unknown. If I were a betting man, which I’m not, considering where blended casks of this age have appeared in recent years via the independents, then I’d be quietly confident in its origins. It’ll cost you £200 and will be available later this month.
Thompson Bros. Ardmore 1998 – review
Color: light gold.
On the nose: joyous with time, as the peat and coastal vibes come through. Hazelnuts, a sweet sugary earthy syrup, black peppercorns and waxed apples. A lovely balance due to the patient maturation. Sweet tobacco smoke, celeriac, mace, rock candy and lemon oil.
In the mouth: A waxy texture, dunking for apples and lemon peel. A light marmalade, honey and earthy, with a burnt crust. Ripe pears, green mangoes, kumquat and juicy goodness. More pepper, black tea, melon and a dirty vanilla.
Thompson Bros. 1980 Blend 38 year old – review
On the nose: honeycomb, walnuts and a sense of age! Raspberries, resin, rice cakes, liquorice and bourbon-vanilla. A sense of quality. Danish oil, dried oranges, eucalpytus, tar-like and a wonderful complexity in the glass. Beeswax, fudge and cinnamon round off quite a trip.
In the mouth: lacking a touch of power on the palate but you can feel a dignified presence. Sherry wood notes come as no surprise, but beyond the walnuts, toffee and leather are glazed cherries, rusty nails, a touch of smoke and bashed conkers. Returning, provides comfort with dark chocolate and the edges of a well-fired ginger loaf.
These are 2 excellent cask choices from Dornoch that remind us that not all Scotch is bad, or even average. I do think we can lament the current state of whisky and wallow in the mire. Admittedly, there are a great deal of inept casks, rushed fermentations, youthful whiskies and bland distillates being bottled and shoved out into a rampant market. Complete at ridiculous prices, with marketing camouflage and lavish packaging. Terroir doesn’t necessarily mean a worthwhile, better or enjoyable whisky. Traceability means you are better informed and hopefully – fingers crossed – a better dram at the end of the day, but nothing is guaranteed, as we’ll no doubt see.
I suspect, it’ll be many years before we see anything approaching the standard that we have here. Both of these whiskies have been given an adequate period to develop and build a sustainable character. There is no silver bullet for time. You can use more forceful wood. Keep casks in a more controlled environment and make all sorts of proclamations. Whisky shouldn’t be rushed and the end result will be drams to saviour like this Ardmore and mystery blend.
It goes without saying these samples and images were kindly provided by the Thompson Bros. but as you can see and history shows, they don’t affect our judgement.