This year’s festival season for me was a total bust. I was indisposed and waiting patiently on a greater and more valuable arrival than any auction house. Cast as an outsider for a change, it gave me new perspective on missing out and the craziness of bottle chasing when you’re beyond the eye of the storm.
Thankfully, I do have some friends. Good whisky friends, as well as personal friends. Apart from sending me kind updates as to the fun they were having (and whiskies being consumed) on a regular basis, they also offered to pick up some festival releases for me at cost price. In all, I pretty much had my pick of the new Highland festival, or the more established Campbeltown, Islay and Speyside incumbents. Picking out ones that interested me personally, I decided with the help of Justine to bring these now desirable releases to a wider audience.
There is a temptation from distilleries I’m sure to ship out experimental or haphazard whiskies under the festival banner. With the exception of Glen Scotia or Jura, they are guaranteed sell-outs and the source of great interest. Easy money and a problem expelled. And for the hardy souls that have stood in line to then walk across the car park to deposit the bottle/s into the welcoming arms of the nearest auction van. This is the way of things today, but we don’t necessarily have to accept it as such.
I decided much like my lost distillates tasting from a few years ago, that another event was overdue. It seems ironic that someone living in Scotland, or the UK for that matter, isn’t able to try these whiskies without paying over the odds. I’m not motivated or blindsided by monetary value. I have a day job and I do reasonably well. I’m thankful for life and not driven by greed or status. Whiskies are meant to be shared and the more the merrier. Although I’ve drawn the line at paying £395 for the Lagavulin 21 year old Jazz festival release; proof that companies are watching the secondary market and reacting.
Justine and I agreed upon a bargain ticket price of £35pp for all 6 whiskies. In this era of whisky tastings, brands and masterclasses – with increasing hype and ticket prices – I doubt you’ll find a better offering than what we served up – until the next time perhaps? The ticket covered the costs including those of the venue with a little extra left over for me to purchase a Glenfiddich 12yo as a treat. A great deal, and thanks to the team at Holyrood distillery for opening their doors to us. Those fortunate to have a ticket were also offered a discounted tour as a bonus feature at Edinburgh’s newest distillery.
I should do more tastings, but MALT keeps me busy so I rely on the goodwill of others to do a bit of the organisation. I cannot thank Justine enough for her patience in dealing with me, the venue and good advice.
This is as you can envisage all written pre-tasting. The conclusions will summarise the event and whiskies and I’ve reviewed each of these in advance whilst helping to formulate the running order. Speaking of which how do you decide upon such a thing? It is for most, the last surprise of the tasting itself, so from my Loki inspired outlook, an opportunity to have some fun.
All of the whiskies were bottled at cask strength with the exception being the Scarabus at 46%. Water was set to be your best friend in the venue. The expectation is Clynelish would be first and I wanted to break that. I felt the SMWS Glen Scotia was more intricate and had a seasoning effect – it would wake up the palate and prepare attendees for what lay ahead. Not being heavily peated, or too coastal, would then lead us into the Clynelish. Itself a coastal town; a fact that many overlook and this whisky is bold and brash, claiming the second slot in the line-up. Then the pivot point and appearing maybe slightly earlier than expected with the Longrow well integrated with rum casks. A burst of sweetness and brown sugar tempering the peat menace greatly. This then brings the Scarabus into play with its more vegetative style of peat before giving us the big guns in Lagavulin and Caol Ila. That’s how the running order would play out in my mind and my own tasting notes subscribe to this order. As for the outcome and reaction from the attendees themselves? Read on.
SMWS 93.108 Earthy and masculine – review
You can read our existing review of this release but for convenience we’re replicated the tasting notes below.
Colour: white gold.
On the nose: quite an assault on the senses! Sea salt, crackers, whipped cream and a dirty rag. Sooty and that distinctive aroma of sand in your shoe after a beach walk. Prunes, pink peppercorns, Danish oil, almonds and white chocolate. Dried seaweed, vanilla, ripe apples, pumpkin pie spice and pencil shavings.
In the mouth: an oily texture and flavour awaits. Washed sea shells, driftwood and smoked lemon, pine sap, burnt vanilla custard, more lemon and lime jelly. A real saltiness reminiscent of salt baked cod, or bacalhau, throws itself out there alongside engine oil and poached pears.
Clynelish 2009 Distillery hand-fill – review
Bottled for the 2019 Highland Festival on 12th May at 57.3%, this 10-year-old resided in a 1st fill ex-bourbon hogshead (cask #303029) after being distilled on 23rd Februrary 2009.
Colour: ginger and lemongrass tea.
On the nose: vanilla, lots of vanilla it must be stated. There is wax, but I felt it’s somewhat different i.e. a less refined wax. Less of the Clynelish Jo Malone and more Aldi bottom shelf; still, it’s there. Honey, yep. Caramel, yep. Then poached pears and white chocolate. Orange pip, wine gums, cream soda and coconut. Quite the sweetie of a nose with some unused tea leaves adding a needed dimension. Water showcases yer apples, juicy fruit chewing gum and orange zest.
In the mouth: waxy and youthful. More orange sediment and a lovely texture. More of that vanilla vibe and a gentle degree of wax. A spoonful of honey, lemon peel and white pepper. Water reveals more of the wood, lime and tannins.
Longrow 2004 15 year old – review
Distilled in February 2004, this was bottled on 23rd May 2019 for the Campbeltown Festival of the same year. This was fully matured in fresh rum casks and bottled at 52.4% with an outturn of 911 bottles.
Colour: golden syrup.
On the nose: very sweet with brown sugar, roasted hazelnuts and pinewood. There’s a sense of well judged integration; harmony. The peat sits well alongside the sweetness of the rum cask. Cream soda, goldeny syrup, tinny with a touch of smoke. There’s yeast, vanilla, sunflower oil and banana. Time reveals pineapple, a minty zest, apple peel and a sense of sunshine. Water unlocks fennel, tarragon and brass rubbings.
In the mouth: again well integrated, elements of sugar sit well with the herbal aspects and the peat comes nicely into play. A sense of refreshment with pine nuts, oiliness, pineapple and fresh apples and Kiwi fruit. Water induces a calming effect and it loses its sprakle somewhat but unlocks more fruit and smoke.
Scarabus Islay Malt – Review
We direct you towards our 3-way review of this release.
On the nose: plenty of hot dog brine with fatty bacon chips oozing oil. A sprinkling of salt, smoked toffee and grilled haddock. Plenty of seaside aromas, peat and driftwood. Memories of ham hock are revived plus the old brass paraffin lamp from my grandfather’s coal mining days. A dirty vanilla is present and accounted for alongside chilli flakes and orange zest. Adding a splash of water reveals lemon oil and mint imperials.
In the mouth: rather pleasant and oily with a voluptuous mouthfeel. Scorched fallen oak trees, sea salt and a stewed black tea. There’s honey, kindling, black pudding spices, squashed apple flesh and cracked peppercorns. Salted peanuts follow, as does vanilla and of course the peat but a lovely balance is evident throughout. Water isn’t a favourable addition revealing a muggy and bog-like nature with crackers and plenty of oak; meaning I preferred it neat.
Caol Ila Feis Ile 2019 22 year old – review
A festival outturn of 3000 bottles, this was matured in sherry-treated American oak casks. Bottled at 58.4% and available on the secondary market.
On the nose: spicy with caramel, a peppery thurst and noticeable sweetness. A handful of wild berries, red liquorice, heather and driftwood. There’s hemp, salted peanuts and integrated peat. Orange peel, cherries, syrup, sherbet and sawdust. Water I felt didn’t move the earth; more sweetness and chocolate.
In the mouth: not as integrated on the palate. The sherry feels like a blunt instrument of torture with no depth. Big peat and a long peppery finish. Smoky BBQ ribs, bacon and a charred nature. More black peppercorns, apricot, cherries and sweeping up the ash from a fireplace the morning after. Water is more beneficial showcasing more earthy foilage, chocolate brownie and a touch of Turkish delight.
Lagavulin 2019 19 year old – review
A festival outturn of 6000 bottles, this was matured in sherry-treated American oak casks and European oak puncheon. Bottled at 53.8% and available on the secondary market.
On the nose: plenty of peat and a nettle bush. Metallic, more foilage, almonds and a black coffee. Lots of mushrooms, bark and memories of a coal bunker. Yeasty, pine resin, ham hock and lemon zest. Coastal vibes and sea spray follow with water revealing more lemon oil and sea shells.
In the mouth: the peat emphasis continues layered with black pepper, bronze rubbing, sherried mushrooms (Champiñones al Jerez), salty, orange segments, lemon oil, dried fruits and tar. Given more time; dark chocolate and Lapsang souchong enter proceedings. Water unleashes more peat and a real earthy boggy nature.
The Glen Scotia arguably isn’t as bold or self-proclaiming as the other whiskies on the line-up. It has a more subtle and shy nature – not to say it isn’t without value. The SMWS consistently bottle 93’s and mostly from bourbon without any interference. These are on the whole, a good standard so you can pick up something else with confidence and avoid the extra price associated with a festival bottling. I’ve had a couple of younger Clynelish releases this year from the Thompson Bros. and the SMWS; both have disappointed to a certain degree. This distillery pick fares better even though it still requires more time. There’s enough of the Clynelish nature to keep you occupied and pleasantly going back for more.
The Longrow 15 sings balance more than anything. A memorable and harmonious concoction of heavily peated spirit and rum. The winner is you the drinker (or attendee) if you picked this up for retail. For the tasting it marked a midway point. Before we stepped into the less refined peat of Islay, the Longrow offered a perfect transition point.
The Caol Ila is a divisive whisky. It plays to the mass market. Those of us who have had well aged whiskies from this distillery will know differently. We’ve been spoiled by Cadenhead’s in recent times. This is Caol Ila ABC with a diploma in Diageo engineering. It’s muddled and smothered by the cask. Like a battered piece of vinyl it needs restoration and a deep clean; not the headline act that some have made out. The Lagavulin is more successful. It feels more balanced and suggestive of what you’d expect from this distillery.
And what about on the night? I’d never been to Holyrood distillery until that evening and I’ll have to return for a proper tour. Being the first proper whisky tasting that they’ve hosted, is pretty cool. You never know how 30, or so strangers, will integrate and behave. Within a dram or 2, it seemed like an old pals’ network had been revived. Making my role and Justine’s even easier and our thanks to you all.
Maybe we’re spoiled in Scotland when it comes to whisky, or the UK for that matter as several attendees had travelled from afar. There’s no need to dress up or pose. We just open the bottles and get on with a gathering of our own. The whisky is the thing that united us all and the running order went down well, as did the whiskies on offer. Overall, the winner was the Longrow that also represented value for money, closely followed by the Clynelish which is the rarest of the set.
The general consensus was these releases were of a good standard. Although, no one was willing to pay the secondary market prices with the exception being that Longrow. The Caol Ila wasn’t the marmite dram we expected. Thanks to the attendees from the London Whisky Club we had the opportunity to compare the whisky with their potential defect bottling and the difference was immediately apparent. Hopefully, Diageo can offer a solution to the club.
I left the venue satisfied that we had achieved something memorable, opened and shared some rarities. The very next day Justine was onto me, asking if we can do something again soon…