Brands dominate whisky today, coming in all shapes and forms. There are the obvious blockbuster brands and names that we see throughout whisky. Beyond these are the new arrivals, those rebuilding reputations, or starting afresh.
Today, we have a new offering within the independent sector. This is a bustling marketplace with a huge shopping trolley of offerings. You can label and package to your hearts content, but it ultimately comes down to the quality of your casks. For the Whisky Illuminati, they have tried to weave some mystery into their origins and whiskies. The name itself suggests a secret society, but not of the Scotch kind, where you pay an annual membership to have the opportunity to purchase increasingly finished whiskies.
Things kicked off with Candlelight & Alba releases that featured whiskies from Girvan, Glentauchers, Invergordon, Linkwood, North British and Strathclyde all of which are still available at retail. The big hitters of that outturn (Clynelish and Mortlach) unsurprisingly sold out. The remainder will take time, with price point always being a factor in today’s competitive market – but more on that later. For now, we’re unearthing the Illuminati’s Solaria outturn, which offers you the change to compare and contrast in the coming years. Solaria heralds from process of drying staves in the Spanish sun, prior to the cooperage deploying their ancient skills.
For this concept, whiskies from a collection of 5 individual distilleries, all distilled in 2011 (reviewed below), were matured in ‘the highest quality European oak, sourced from one of Spain’s finest Sherry Bodegas.’ Nothing new there then, eh readers? Except, only part of each cask has been bottled in 2019. The plan is to release the next batch in 2021 and the final outturn in 2023. In essence, another series on paper, but a journey that you can follow in liquid form and hopefully compare and contrast.
All of the casks used in this project are 100% first fill ex-sherry casks. All of the distilleries are named with the exception of a single entity called Artis Secretum, which is Latin for trade secret. We’ll leave you to ponder which Speyside distillery this is, given the handful that religiously protect their identity. All of the releases will be bottled at cask strength, natural colour and without any chill-filtering. Each has been filled with new make spirit in 2011 and left undisturbed until now.
This does come with a flaw however and its simply a matter of price. Each release in this first outturn will cost £120. That for many of us is a price too high to pay for what is a relatively young whisky. I have mixed thoughts on the pricing. We know that sherry casks command a premium, but how much? Also, this is a series, so there’s always an extra for this. In addition, if you purchase a bottle, then you’ll have the opportunity to subsequently purchase the remaining editions from that cask. A little administration is therefore likely built into the overall price. However, it is still £120 and for many that’s probably £20-£30 too much. There’s something psychological about a 3-figure price point that goes beyond many wallets.
The Whisky Illuminati by nature are going for a more premium placement in the market with their branding and presentation. The additional extras I received in this sample pack underline this. Yet there is the sense this could be a really interesting voyage. At least I’m being given the opportunity to try all the entries and pick a winner, or the most likely candidate, to develop right up until 2023, which will be here before you know it. Therefore, on the price aspect, all of these whiskies have been deducted a point.
I cannot help but feel the Illuminati have missed a trick here. Why not bottle at a smaller size and hopefully underline a more inclusive approach? A 35cl or 50cl priced accordingly may have been of more interest to the general marketplace – a demographic that is proactively keen to educate themselves through the aromas and tastes of whisky. Getting more people through the doors initially would ensure the success of the project and breed more excitement around the brand itself. However, it is what it is, and we have these opening whiskies to explore in alphabetical order.
Whisky Illuminati Artis Secretum – review
An outturn of 150 bottles at 67.1% strength, and available from Master of Malt for £120.
Colour: fresh honeycomb.
On the nose: caramel, shoe polish, chocolate soil and a rusty element. A decadent honey, brass rubbings, rose petals, glazed cherries and strawberries. Ginger cake, rhubarb, spent tobacco. Water ushers a touch of smoke, orange peel and a spirity nature.
In the mouth: a more fluid texture with alcohol coming through on the fringes and especially the finish. Treacle, sticky toffee pudding with added prunes and very warming! Also has a mulled wine spice ethic going on. With water things become more rounded, clammy and earthy with blackberries and chocolate most prominent.
Whisky Illuminati Aultmore 2011 – review
An outturn of 120 bottles at 67.5% strength, and available from Master of Malt for £120.
Colour: cinder toffee.
On the nose: a pleasing arrival of rum fudge, chocolate, cloves and fennel. Candied orange and beeswax soon follows, alongside kindling and an assortment of dried fruits. Tobacco, treacle sponge and ginger root provide more cask influence with beef jerky, aniseed baws and charcoal rounding off a punch voyage. Water unlocks Maltesers, a creamy toffee and cinnamon.
In the mouth: alcohol yes, but not as excessive as you may have thought. It does limit the flavours somewhat with cherrywood, dark chocolate and leather vibes being the most prominent. Black peppercorns follow with the addition of water proving beneficial; more coherent with walnuts, varnish and fudge.
Whisky Illuminati Craigellachie 2011 – review
An outturn of 100 bottles at 67.9% strength, and available from Master of Malt for £120.
Colour: sherry cask.
On the nose: a little rubber, raspberries – ice cream syrup, fresh wood, basil, maple syrup and chocolate mint. Vanilla, milk chocolate, toffee, cherries and stewed tea. Water unlocks a nutty toffee, an off reflux aroma, tarragon and a sense of a tempestuous whisky.
In the mouth: rusty, dense and a dirty quality. Roasted coffee beans, a metallic element, gravy granules and the oddity continues with water. Plenty of wood, more reflux, stewed tea and sage.
Whisky Illuminati Glentauchers 2011 – review
An outturn of 150 bottles at 63.4% strength, and available from Master of Malt for £120.
On the nose: fresh wood, sappy and with nutmeg and chocolate. There’s ginger root, basil leaf, rubbed bronze and worn leather. Sweetness with honey, walnuts, Chinese 5-spice wrapped in a mustiness with butterscotch and figs. Adding water brings out an oiliness with orange zest, thyme, fudge and toffee.
In the mouth: more sweetness than the others. Redberries, cranberries then wood, then dryness. Dark chocolate follows alongside aniseed, brown sugar and rum-like qualities. Plum jam, cherries and water brings forth more fruits, walnuts and leather.
Whisky Illuminati Royal Brackla 2011 – review
An outturn of 150 bottles at 68% strength, and available from Master of Malt for £120.
On the nose: an approchable assortment of varnish, honey and a lighter arrival than the others here. Caramel lingers, vanilla marshmallows and apples with some citrus trying to be heard. More traditional aromas step in with cloves, milk chocolate, burnt toast and milk chocolate, moss and pecans.
In the mouth: an oozing texture, bark, leather, chocolate, redcurrants, apricots and green apples. More approachability with caramel, vanilla and water reveals more of the wood influence and dryness.
Where to start with all of these? People wrongly assume I don’t like sherry casks. Unfortunately, I’ve been spoiled by previous decades of good quality sherry casks and not the rinsed/seasoned variety we endure nowadays. In terms of flavour, depth and interaction, they are worlds apart. I know a good quality sherry cask as well as a bourbon offering. It’s just they are an endangered breed nowadays.
The cask is very much king for all of these releases but you expected as much. These are just the 1st step; the first footing of the whisky world. Therefore not the pinnacle moment to bottle; the casks themselves are of a high standard.
Ultimately, these are hard to score because normally you wouldn’t expect to see these slumbering sherry fiends until much later – unless you’re Adelphi. Some may need longer than the project itself. Others might be overcome by the vice-like grip of the wood. Perhaps, if I’m still here in 2021 or 2013, or even if MALT still exists. It’d be of interest to score and then put together an average across the project.
Artis is a mystery, but already approachable and with time, a very pleasing whisky. I had high expectations of the Craigellachie, I still do to a certain extent. It might be the whisky that turns itself around and comes on leaps and bounds. Currently, it feels as the harmony is still to be established. One that’s very much watch this space, or cask. In comparison, the Aultmore feels almost ready at this point and time.
The Glentauchers already has a pleasing mix of fruit sweetness and some harmony with the wood. I expect it’ll only improve over time and we’ll be able to follow that journey. The Royal Brackla really did have a character of its own, in essence the distillery DNA, or new make, was standing up to the cask. This resulted in character. All 5, despite residing in 1st fill casks, do have elements of their own and noticeable differences. That’s part of the appeal of the concept if you’re happy to pay the admission price.
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