I’ve often likened Fettercairn to that infamous scene in Tarantino’s classic Pulp Fiction. The one where, Ving Rhames and Bruce Willis, find themselves trapped in a seedy pawn shop and about to face the ultimate horror. Bring out the gimp. The sense of fear and disbelief for them and us as whisky drinkers is all too real, because the gimp in whisky terms is Fettercairn.
Only Jura can claim to have emptied more rooms, or repelled more Viking invaders than Fettercairn. Both are linked by their parent company, Whyte & Mackay, which is also sadly responsible for the sacrificial lamb in Tamnavulin – a distillery that lingers at the bottom of many a whisky form list. I’m overlooking the tan-fest that is Dalmore right now as Mark has a soft spot for it, but you can see the legacy of these distilleries in their products today. All of this begs the question; why are they so bad?
Well, believe it or not, I don’t think they are that bad. All distilleries are capable of greatness. The problem with all of these distilleries is one of mismanagement. Whether that’s a parade of owners, a changing of the marketing guard, or bad wood and distilling practices. There is a sense that their whiskies are being forced down a path and style that doesn’t really suit their characteristics.
The changing of core ranges and styles every few years – wonderfully demonstrated by Fettercairn – causes confusion I’m sure at the distillery, never mind what we think, or expect, as consumers. What is Fettercairn’s style – you tell me? I believe many of us would struggle to see past the bad practises of 40% strength, filtered to within an inch of its life, artificial colouring and mixed messages. The only thing that resonates time and time again is to avoid Fettercairn.
In reality, I cannot blame you for such a sentiment. Several distilleries test our patience as whisky drinkers and some of the aforementioned are prime culprits. If the official range – or the current incarnation of – is a bust, then we have the independents. My Cadenhead’s Fettercairn 1988 review, revived hope as does today’s subject matter. Proof that away from the iron fist of Whyte & Mackay, these whiskies can live and breathe. Free from the bad practises and need to produce bulk inept supermarket white label product; Fettercairn becomes more than a gimp.
Let me now take you to Rotterdam and specifically to the 2018 Whiskybase Gathering event. I’ve written about this on several occasions and remain resolute this is the finest whisky festival on the international circuit today. You’ll have seen the recent lacklustre attempts from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society to have their own Gathering event. I felt a little bemused by the SMWS naming their own new creation after an already established (now in its 4th incarnation next month) whisky event.
With the US Gathering tastings happening around now, I don’t think the UK edition has set any benchmarks, or had the reach/success the Society envisaged. As a member within a short distance of 2 venues; I didn’t feel the need to attend, or actually see the concept taking fruition. More commerciality to sell some bottles (the outturn wasn’t great at all), or these tasting packs. If you had fun then fantastic, but it wasn’t for me and friends I’ve spoken to who did attend, were non-plussed.
I suppose what also frustrates, is that I’ve seen the effort the Whiskybase team put into their festival. The name isn’t trademarked as such, but there must be a sense of awareness within the whisky realm and respect that’s sadly been posted missing at the SMWS. For the Whiskybase team, it’s taken years of work, effort and a team of volunteers giving up their time free of charge, to build what it is today. The fact they keep admission prices low underlines that it is very organic and not a profit-making exercise. I doubt whether it is financially viable whatsoever. But it brings whisky enthusiasts together from across the world for a weekend of enjoyment. A true Gathering and lacking the sense of commerciality that’s running rampant at the SMWS. Putting this aside right now, I know my writings about the Gathering have encouraged several to make the trek next month. I truly hope you have a wonderful time. This event won’t, I expect, last forever. It will evolve into something else and we can look back on the Gatherings with a sense of pride and happiness.
One of the treats was this Fettercairn which resided on the Whisky Corner stand. This Ukrainian bottler was one of the big surprises of the Gathering last year. Sourcing their own casks and then on some occasions using native casks to provide a unique finish. It caught many attendees off guard. Sadly, there was no opportunity to purchase a bottle from the shop, but you could try the wacky 2010 Caol Ila, or the extremely rare 2003 Super Heavily Peated Bruichladdich pre-Port Charlotte release.
A bonkers but fun assortment of whiskies from the Ukraine! This is what the Gathering is about for all of us. Surprises even for the most sour faced whisky enthusiast such as myself. These guys were fun and full of energy about their whiskies and eager to showcase their wares. And they are back for 2019!
The Gathering has a phone app for attendees. You can score any of the thousands of whiskies that you explore throughout the day. These scores are compiled live across the various giant screens in each of the 3 halls. Rising to the top for most of the day (and finishing in the top 5 for the weekend) was this 35-year-old Fettercairn from 1978, bottled at 53.5% with an outturn of 297 being released. I found it hilarious seeing a whisky from this distillery sitting proudly alongside the Brora’s and Port Ellen’s of this world – it just goes to show you.
Ukrainian Whisky Connoisseurs Fettercairn 1978 – review
Colour: Ginger loaf.
On the nose: A chocolate orange greeting with a hint of mustiness and dampness. Sherbet, honeycomb and a varnish gives this an elegant feeling, heightened by a leathery quality. An oily Fettercairn as well, more gingerbread and a sense of age. A touch of vanilla, a ripe mango and a lovely degree of complexity and balance.
In the mouth: Cherrywood is the main thrust and then apples caramelised in butter with pancakes. A little hot? Walnut moving into varnish and an old oak tree. Waxy, really waxy! Black tea notes littered with withered spices including ginger. Oranges and clay towards the finish with a lick of alcohol suggesting plenty of power.
A very unusual and distinctive whisky. The fact it is from Fettercairn makes it even more remarkable. You can taste the age across the palate and the sense of history. The potential that has been untapped by its current owners? Let’s hope the next re-branding finally delivers.
Bring out the Fettercairn!
The 2nd image kindly provided by Whiskybase.