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.