I have been rather fortunate to have a proper whisky shop nearby. By proper, I mean something of an Aladdin’s Cave, bottles stacked high in some esoteric system that to date I still have not understood.
The basement of Gauntleys of Nottingham is rather famous to drinkers. At first, on the narrow upper floor, is a tobacconist’s with a few items cluttering a window display to make you think there’s more, somewhere, if you could only find it; but even this window is tucked inside the yawning mouth of the Exchange Arcade, one of Nottingham’s loveliest old buildings. Once inside the shop, there’s a stairwell to the left, which twists at right angles down to another world entirely, one where money becomes an abstract concept.
Facing you stands an eclectic whisky selection: Scotch, plenty of that yes; but Japanese, Irish, Bourbon, English, Indian, Taiwanese, independent bottlers, the works; a fair bit of rum and assorted malternatives, which were there long before they became the next big thing; all of these bottles are interesting, off the beaten track, and vetted. To your left is a wall of fine wines; a shelf of champagnes (mostly Vilmart, and any of Francoise Bedel’s wonderful value Cuvee Entre Ciel et Terre I have done my best to liberate – 5 bottles to date); aged port, a wall of pipes to the right… You can’t really move down there, and nor would you want to; which is all the more remarkable given the relatively small size of the place.
This place, then, isn’t so much a whisky shop as a drinker’s shop; somewhere that the genuinely curious can explore for hours. The Whisky Shop chain opened a store nearby, literally around the corner, but there is a different clientele here – with, I doubt, much crossover. Whereas that other store tends to get gift-buyers, passers-by bedazzled by the latest Macallan window display and the likes, this place actively has to be sought out; you have to be in the know. There is no way you’d accidentally end up in Gauntleys.
In fact, that’s possibly what I like the most about it. In my ten years of casually popping in – which is not as frequently as I’d like, given I live a bit of a way out of Nottingham these days – I don’t think it’s changed in any significant way. Most importantly is the mood: perhaps intimidating to some, to me this feels like a timeless store; a wine and spirits merchant of yesteryear; way off the satnav of Big Whisky.
These places are good for the soul. I don’t know about you, but I am bored senseless by the number of meaningless press releases with nothing authentic to say these days; the lack of integrity of producers as (and it’s not their fault) marketing and PR messages are spun out of context; a world where brands are even paying for their own whiskies at auctions just to spin the news cycle one more time. So to descend down to an authentic, somewhat eclectic, somewhat eccentric world – in the modern context – where everything has been vetted, scrutinised, is a balm for my liver (perhaps I reach for the wrong metaphor, but you get the picture). A trip to Gauntleys always triggers my inner geek; I must get down there again soon…
The spirits side of the business is run by the excellent Chris Goodrum, who many of you may know from his days reviewing for Whisky Magazine (before me), judging various competitions or running his metal-tinged YouTube review show. I can’t think of many people who know more about spirits than he does; I can’t think of many people who have tasted more than he has. So I was very intrigued to hear that Gauntleys had a new bottling all of its own.
Chris’s first selection was a Caol Ila, which was perhaps just a little surprising. One can’t help but feel there’s a lot of Caol Ila bottlings on the secondary market; I wonder if, combined, they outstrip the sales of the distillery bottlings? But there’s nothing indeed wrong with Caol Ila – I find it the rather unsung hero of Islay whiskies. Dependable for the most part, it has somewhat become the indie botter’s go-to choice. Anyway, the first Gauntley’s selection is an openly youthful offering – 8 years of age, bottled in an ex-bourbon cask at a lively 61.2% ABV, and costs £50.
Gauntleys Of Nottingham – 1880 Collection: The Officers Mess Bottling No.1
Colour: white wine, pale straw.
On the nose: a lovely, creamy, soft nose; gentle peat from Caol Ila; more that smokey tea than anything too potent. Lemon drizzle cake; Philidelphia soft cheese, linseed oil. Bay leaves. Coastal notes, very briny. Cereal notes, boiled pork, but then the vanilla returns: Custard Creams now, Bakewell tart, sweeter nuts: ground almonds; honeysuckle.
In the mouth: good lord that’s got some profound sweetness to it. Intense vanilla, rather surprising given the colour, and the softness of the nose. That fades with time. A dash of Lapsang Suchong, oranges and black pepper, which doubles up on the finish. It feels surprisingly clean and crisp at first, but there’s a dirtiness with time; industrial notes, heavier olive oil, herbal, savoury edge. Dried sage; mossy, lots of mineral qualities.
Young whiskies can be lively and flavoursome; even this – which looking at the colour alone was not ameliorated a huge amount by the wood – showed a decent quality spirit was there, yet the magic of a single casks sees rogues take us by surprise. Of course, this style of whisky is not ordinarily my go-to whisky these days; but of this type of whisky, this is a really lovely expression, it has soul. A very good choice for bottle number one.