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Mysteries from Orkney

More whiskies from the fertile shores of Orkney. We shouldn’t even need to tell you where these whiskies are from, given Stromness is long gone, and the chances of us seeing an independently bottled Scapa are right up there with the MALT team recording a Christmas single and it reaching number 1 in the charts.

Now, you’d be forgiven for rightly thinking we’d have something against releases such as these that are unable to name the actual distillery. In these marvellous times of terroir and transparency, such practises go against the grain surely? It is after all, about protectionism. Not for you the consumer, but the distillery that works so hard to polish those Viking longboats and legends into some form of drinkable pigswill for unsuspecting passers-by.

In reality, we don’t mind the situation when it is painfully obvious where the whisky comes from. In both cases here, that should be apparent and having tasted both, it is obvious that we can rule out Stromness and Scapa. Where MALT and I suspect you may have an issue are those casks that are deliberately an unknown entity. Either the records of the cask have been lost to time, thereby preventing the bottler from stating on the label – or more likely nowadays – the computer says no from corporate headquarters. The upside of this situation, is that lacking a distillery name, means that in theory (and we note that some independents are becoming a little greedy in the marketplace), we should be paying less.

Cold hard cash is the bottom line at the end of the day. We talk about pricing all the time directly with no quarter given. Some other resources might use pricing silos for their releases, or a handy star chart, while others just avoid the issue. Price is important because along with the other factors such as an age statement, distillery name, cask style, strength etc. it gives the prospective consumer context. And more than ever, we are looking for value in these times of uncertainty and lacklustre whiskies.

When we ran the statistics earlier this year to compile a top 10 countdown of our most popular aritcles, it became very apparent that value matters. A total of 7 were supermarket blends. These mysterious beasts – often white labelled – can deliver a welcome surprise, as shown by my recent review of Aldi’s Highland Black. You can also use this Ralfy-style as the base ingredient to your own blended concoction. Add a little of that single malt you took on a punt on, which proved disappointing and hey presto! Something new, interesting and hopefully more wholesome. After all, Mark and I agree that you don’t need to be a master blender to come up with something pleasurable.

Meanwhile, back on Orkney, casks are plentiful and Highland Park isn’t what it once was. The official 12-year-old feels lighter and more delicate; the 18-year-old is still strong, but lacks some of the bravado and swagger of bygone years. I’m not expecting a suitable reinforcement from the Cask Orkney 18, noting it’s exclusively matured in ex-bourbon casks. It’ll lack that extra degree of complexity and the foundation that a touch of sherry provides. It’ll be more lightweight, earnest and manoeuvrable, but still celebrating its Neolithic heritage. The official 18 retails now for circa £100 and that comes as a surprise! I haven’t bought a bottle in ages and had to just search online for that price. Maybe it isn’t too much of a surprise? Given all the packaging and branding. These things and marketing cost money and we’re paying for such extras.

Probably Orkney’s Finest is a misleading title albeit pleasingly devoid of any Viking permutations. It is open to debate as to what is Orkney’s Finest in the eye of the beholder. I’d say nowadays, the prospect of a new Scapa would be more of interest to me than another Highland Park offering to the Nordic gods. It was never always this way and hopefully the tide will turn. Because at the end of the day, Highland Park can be a great whisky and we grasp onto such memories in the face of lacklustre official versions.

The Cask Orkney 18 is bottled at 46% and will set you back a pleasing £62.45 via the Whisky Exchange, or £62.33 via Master of Malt. Both prices showcase the premium nature of the official 18 and the cost of those flamboyant extras. The Cask Orkney 18 is presented well enough, which shows you can do remarkable things on a budget.

The Douglas Laing offering was distilled in May 2003, before being bottled in May 2019 at a strength of 48.4%. The refill hogshead resulted in 371 bottles at a price of £76.95 via Master of Malt, or expect to pay slightly less at £76.25 from the Whisky Exchange.

A.D. Rattray Cask Orkney 18 year old – review

Colour: white gold.

On the nose: a gentle peat smoke wafts from the glass, juicy apples, wine gums or some form of jelly sweetie, oat cakes and Highland heather. A slightly earthy/sandy nature, followed by lemon peel, a little soot and time reveals more fruits. Water isn’t hugely beneficial.

In the mouth: just on the limit in terms of strength, a touch of peat and a little vapid. Core characteristics of toffee and black pepper. The apples return alongside kindling, shortbread and salted caramel. Classic Highland Park in a way, an echo of the past that has grown weary.

Score: 7/10

Douglas Laing Probably Orkney’s Finest – review

Colour: white gold.

On the nose: peat smoke again but more honeyed and benefiting from that slightly higher strength. Smoked apples, citrus with lime peel and heather. It smells richer compared to the Cask Orkney, more earthy and body, with toffee once again. Water reveals a yeasty nature, pine nuts and more limes.

In the mouth: a pleasing texture, more peat emphasis yet not as detailed because of it. Earthy soot, apple puree and toffee. Hob Nob biscuits and a little liquorice with black pepper oat cakes on the finish. Water unlocks more juicy fruits, white pepper, a sappy nature and wine gums.

Score: 6/10

Conclusions

A pleasing foray into Orkney for a change; one that doesn’t cost the earth, or even Valhalla. Both of these whiskies are worthwhile options. In essence, you are paying more for the single cask Douglas Laing and losing a couple of years, but it’s down to personal preference. Given the choice, I’d actually go with the Cask Orkney, as it is more accessible, pleasing and leaves a few quid in your pocket; it’s also available in a 20cl bottle as well. Both releases are immediately identifiable as Highland Parks and worthwhile alternatives if you’re seeking refuge from the official range.

Sample kindly provided by the Carnegie Whisky Cellars in Dornoch. There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    James Allsop says:

    I bought the Rattray bottle earlier in the year and was very pleased with it, I’ll be replacing it once empty. Fancied a go on their Cask Islay too but it’s less obvious which distillery it’s from (Caol Ila is probably the safe bet) and it’s NAS so I haven’t bothered yet.

    Glad you agree on the Cask Orkney though!

      1. Avatar
        Mark says:

        The Cask Orkney was made available for purchase in Australia a few months ago for about $80 less than the OB 18 year old and was a real tempter.

        FYI Jason I am in Scotland right now and visited Deanston today for a bottle your own. I sampled the range of distillery exclusives and found a 23 year old Oloroso matured the most satisfying. The French Wine 14 year old bottle your own may have been the least of the bunch but I’m on holiday and wanted the experience, for what it’s worth.

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