How much does colour matter? A phrase like that in these times raises eyebrows instantly, but don’t worry, Malt isn’t becoming the Malt-Right. I’m referring to the colour of whisky. And I must admit, for Scotch whisky from indie bottlers – I’m finding that colour is increasingly becoming my first checkpoint.
Here’s the thing – the distilleries have long since snaffled back all of their good casks to release more complex vattings of single malt releases. And the rest of the market – which is to say, the barrels that kick about the secondary market for bottlers to buy up – well, it was hard several years ago to find a good one at a decent price. Today? God knows what it’s like to find a fresh, first-fill cask.
I won’t name names, but let’s just say you look at the monthly outturn of some of the more fan-favourite bottlers and despite being twenty-something years of age the liquids are simply one Pantone away from new make spirit. This makes me wonder what on earth have these whiskies being matured in? How much amelioration has gone on, if any? Were these vessels completely inert?
And I find it staggering that people actually buy them. Yes, I know there’s a tingle at being able to buy a twenty-odd-year-old whisky these days, but at what cost? Flavour, for a start. The distillates from the poor era of Scotch production – when no one really gave a damn about single malts – were not great. Short fermentations, whacked through the stills, a wham-bam whisky heading into a blend near you…
To add insult to injury, a lot of it was then shoved in wood that has been around the block more times than… Well, you get the picture. Just look at the colour to see that nothing has gone on! The best thing is when you get some apologists who act as commentators suggesting that all this is fine that distilleries used old wood, because it gives us a more subtle whisky. “It lets the distillate shine through!” Nonsense: shortcutting on wood – and let the accountants note, these old barrels are a fifth of the price, quality has been chucked out of the window – only gave us a poorly matured whisky.
Which is where colour comes back into it. Only searching among the independents do I do this, for the “refill” cask (which covers a world of sins – how many times has the wood been used? Is it fit only for garden centres?) seems to be on many a label now. Sometimes it is even used proudly, ffs. This means that wood information, then, is becoming meaningless – and wood is just about the only information you can glean from producers.
So what else have we to go on?
Colour… I can pretend I’m a whisky snob, I can bang on about knowing the ins and outs of the industry, but here I am, skimming along until something catches my eye. (Sherry bomb enthusiasts, take note here, I was looking for a non-sherry cask whisky. I have plenty of those.) It is shallow. Maybe it’s a bit like going on gut instinct, rather than being seduced by any of the marketing copy on the bottle (I jest, of course, most whisky copywriting is hilarious, I rarely trust it). Indeed, perhaps I’m just so jaded that I cannot trust anything now: in the absence of good information on how the distillate was made, or really what the casks were, can you blame me for looking at the colour?
Which is where I came along this 18 Year Old Aultmore from Adelphi: I suppose it’s worth looking at the photo to see that it’s just got that alluring colour to it, a handsome thing. And it came from Adelphi, which I have not often reviewed, but I have long-since admired for being one of the best indies out there. Ironically, Adelphi is famed for their illegible labels, so even here colour was just about all I could make out…
Bottled at 55% ABV and this cost a cool £115. Which, for a 18-year-old whisky, isn’t at all a bad deal these days. It used to be the case that Adelphi, though always high quality, used to come with prices that would make one wince ever so slightly, which is perhaps the reason I have never reviewed them all that much. They were premium indie bottlers before the word premium became thoroughly abused. (Like “small batch” has become the new, spuriously applied and way overused version of “craft”.) But £115 is far more reasonable in today’s climate.
So how did that colour work out for me?
Adelphi – Aultmore 18 Year Old – Review
Colour: burnished gold, moving towards chestnut/oloroso.
On the nose: intensely honeyed and floral. Lots of vanilla, naturally, but it’s gentler, lighter, somewhat citrusy and fresher. Tangerines. Dried apricots. Stewed apples. Something slightly herbal in the distance, sage leaves, thyme perhaps, with a lovely meaty green olive note. Linseed oil on cricket bats. With time it becomes the headiest golden sponge cake, a vibrant oven-baked aromatic sweetness.
In the mouth: lovely density to this, and a curious meaty note – a hint of umami, olives and sundried tomatoes, but just a flash before it becomes sweeter. Golden syrup, vanilla, baked pears. Touch of cinnamon. Blood oranges, a zing of pink grapefruit. Roasted herbs. Aubergine (or eggplant, if you’re a step below on the evolutionary ladder). Toasted almonds. It feels nicely autumnal. These are all familiar flavours, yet there’s a harmony here, not to mention a great heft to the spirit. Sparks of lime juice on an oily finish.
I find Aultmore a peculiar distillery. Jason, who deducts 2 points for any whisky outside of Scotland, isn’t too bothered by it. I suppose it flies under many people’s radar. I’ve always found its whiskies to be quite intriguing, and this does nothing to change my mind that it really is worth investigating – only if it’s gone in a good cask. Perhaps, of course, it is helped along that this particular cask had been selected by the consistently reliable people Adelphi.
Regards older whiskies that have barely aged. I have experienced this. I had a 22 year old Glen Grant from a very well known independent bottlers recently. It was 61% abv despite being over 20 years old and was the colour of a light chardonnay. If you’d had blind tasted it and been asked to guess the age? You’d have said 10 maybe 12 years. Barely any maturation has taken place at all.
Lesson learned. The high abv at that age should have got my spidey sense tingling.
I guess on that bottling strength point – though I don’t disagree at all – it might sometimes depend on the original filling strength. For reasons that we can’t quite work out, other than being for cask trading parity back in the day, most is bottled at 63.5% but there’s an awful lot out there, from some surprising distilleries, that clocks in towards the more natural 70-odd %.
To quote “the other” Mark (Reynier): “I’ve had 25 year old single malt that had been in barrels that was so tired, that the spirit was as clear as the day it went in. And yet it is mature whisky.”
I’m teasing you a bit of course, but he said that in response to the notion that most of a whisky’s flavour comes from wood. I don’t disagree with you that a first-fill barrel is usually a plus, but not all first-fills are born equal, as aren’t all refill barrels. I’ve known many examples of first-fill casks (both sherry and bourbon) that dominated the spirit in ways that I found not very enticing, to put it mildly. On the other hand, there are insanely good whiskies around that’ve matured in refill wood.
I get your point of course, and don’t disagree, but you know, nuance and stuff 😉
Ahum, sorry about that, the internet isn’t supposed to be about nuance, my bad. What I meant was: Don’t judge a whisky by its colour, that’s dumb!
We’re not allowed nuance! Yes, I get your point. Some casks are just shit, whether first-fill or otherwise; and some can be a tad extreme.
Plus there’s that big unspoken-about issue with bourbon barrels in that some major distilleries – and suppliers to the scotch industry – add water to the remnants of a barrel in order to extract as much bourbon-y liquid as possible. I forget what the technique is called now – was ‘barrel rinsing’ a few years back; but there’s essentially a two-tier system.
I own a 12 year old single cask Signatory Glenlivet, first fill from a Sherry Hogshead and cask strength at a homicidal 66%. Also a Valinch and Mallet Glenrothes, around 54%, 11 years old and first fill Sherry cask.
Both all wood. The spirit and distillery overpowered and anonymous. So not really my thing. However these sherry bombs are certainly a lot of people’s compulsion. I’m always just happy when folks can find things they enjoy. Reckon when it comes to sherried whiskies, refill might be my go in future.
I’m inclined to agree with that. First fill sherry can be overpowering and makes me wonder why I didn’t just buy some actual sherry for much less price. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky with my selections but these drams could be from any distillery, all unique characteristics bulldozed by a punch of sherry in the face.
That said, mark appropriately points out that “refill” is meaningless. They should have to states if they are 2nd, 3rd, 4th (or what mix if they aren’t single cask releases).
I feel like I’m spending a lot of money for very little information in return to guide my choice. Surely a distillery that actually shares relevant information would get a respectable following from the whisky community?
It can be, but then what’s a sherry cask these days? Quite a wide variety. But then this goes to the point about no information. How can people make an informed choice; and why do bottlers need to bother given that people will buy anything these days?
You could have thought, in this age, there would be plenty of distilleries who bother to do that. But there are surprisingly very few.
Ahem. You write that you were „looking for a non-sherry cask whisky“, but if this is the 2000/2018 at 55%, that’s exactly what this is: a refill-sherry-matured Aultmore. Hence the color.