Mark here. I must admit, I start this post feeling as if my pants have already been pulled down around my ankles. (You must by now be wondering what kind of website you’ve landed on.) But as we search the internet for new and interesting releases, Jason will often fire across a picture of some obscure single malt and we wonder if it’s worth a punt. The latest whisky we bought in this manner was a single malt from Strathearn distillery. I had heard nothing about these people – which is quite rare, given the volume of press releases cluttering up my inbox, so said to Jason “yeah why not”. Yet something later caught my eye, after it had arrived. The label says, mysteriously, “first distilled in 2013”. The only date on the front was 2013. I thought this whisky was at least 6 years old. Jason – what did you make of that?
Jason: Well, referring to my Scotch Whisky Association approved handbook, this is perfectly acceptable. To the rest of us, it is disingenuous, or misleading, to those who don’t know what that means. We’re all well indoctrinated in No Age Statements, but last time I checked, they didn’t put the year of the 1st spirit run on the front – the only figures on the brown label apart from the strength and meaningless batch number. You have to suffer the Shakespearian text on the back label, to realise that it’s 3 years old. As someone who is about to start peddling a great deal of 3-year-old whisky, do you take inspiration from this approach?
Mark: It’s actually quite a good point about someone involved in this process – I’m one of the people responsible for making sure we say the honourable things, in a whisky nation not traditionally known for its honourable statements on a bottle. We wanted everything to be absolutely clear to people – for example, so they can see exactly when it was distilled (versus the barley harvest year which is usually the year before). So I was particularly focussed on whatever numbers appeared on the bottle, which makes me think this is especially disingenuous. I’m surprised the Scotch Whisky Association allowed that – I absolutely think it’s deceitful. But why be so shy about a young whisky? Why try to use smoke and mirrors? You’re perhaps the most traditional of the Malt brigade, in that your second home is Cadenhead’s where the age statement is king. Perhaps you speak for more hardened Scotch veterans than any of us. How hesitant are you about buying young whiskies? Does ‘3 years old’ put you off buying it?
Jason: You’ll remember the days when we were told by the powers that age mattered? Then, it was the wood. Now, it’s a case that the age doesn’t matter whatsoever and the type grain doesn’t play a role. The truth in most cases resides somewhere in-between.
I might be more traditional, but I’m also able to acknowledge you have distilleries out there that are doing some incredible things at a young age. For instance, Kyro, Langatun, Peerless and of course, Smogen. I had an Annandale at 3 years of age: really promising and not afraid to display its youthfulness. Many of these young upstarts are quite happy to state an age – however young – and let you, the consumer, decide whether the price is fair. I remember fondly being on Islay, during the festival, and the best dram I had was a Bunnahabhain that was too young to be called whisky. It had more to say than the tired Lagavulin, or the heavily seasoned Caol Ila.
In Strathearn’s case, Douglas Laing has purchased a distillery with you expect some stock older than 3 years in age. The whole release seems rushed and badly constructed. The more I think about it, I believe that they’re treated it like another of their brands? An independent with no experience of owning or bottling an official distillery release. A lack of awareness around positioning. It’s almost a classic ‘how not to do something’ and the only saving grace would have been the liquid… don’t you think?
Mark: Well, I’m not sure ‘rushed’ as such, but I do think it’s increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd today. To an extent I find modern distilleries ought to have it easier – they’re not shackled by the past, they can do anything they want with their branding so long as it fits what they’re about. Maybe that’s the problem with Strathearn – what is it actually about? I can’t quite tell. It’s got the same cut and paste heritage brand identity as most others. Go to the web page on distilling – where I expect to, you know, find information about how they make it – and they mention “hand” about 9 times, which is trying just a bit too hard. But I’m also left thinking: so what? Handcrafted, small-batch, it’s all been done to death that it doesn’t mean anything any longer. Not to mention that there’s zero mention of the raw materials, so I’m less inclined to believe in the ethics of the “small batch” ethos when producers can’t provide that kind of information to back up the claims.
So Douglas Laing acquired the distillery last year – I can’t help but wonder if this is some of the hopefully healthy family rivalries with Hunter Laing (who I happen to believe are the better bottler, but we’ll park that there) and their excellent looking Ardnahoe distillery on Islay, which has continually shown us what they’re doing production-wise. that for me is the better example, but then they were there from the very start. Anyway, Douglas Laing has a new brand, they’ve got a new bottling out there… All the usual buzzwords of premium and small-batch, but zero information about the whisky. We continually circle back to this on Malt, and this is an excellent case in point: what the hell is it made from, and is it any good; and how have they made it? We don’t know. Which as you say, leads us to the whisky.
Can you remember what, in the crowded field, actually brought this to your attention? Good comments elsewhere, maybe?
Jason: From what I was told, the Douglas Laing Glasgow distillery, is tied up in red tape and taking far too long. That might be true or not, but the purchase of Strathearn came as a surprise. Maybe it was one of those unexpected opportunities too good to pass up? Or a reaction when faced with more delays. Maybe it’ll become a good fit in time, but it’s not a distillery I would have expected them to acquire.
I was surprised when the news was announced. Strathearn always seemed to be a lowkey distillery, quietly chugging along, happy to bottle casks occasionally and sell more casks to groups and individuals. I didn’t think much of it beyond that after the news broke. It was only when someone asked me what I thought of the debut release that I actually realised that Douglas Laing had released something! That prompted our discussion about utilising some of the Patreon funds to pick up a bottle.
I don’t think this release showcases anything about Strathearn whatsoever. There’s the old logo and then some lines of gobbledegook that don’t really add much. As a release, it leaves me with more questions than answers. I’m not really compelled to seek out those answers either.
Mark: And with that, it brings us straight to the point – with so little information about the product, and so little originality around the packaging, let’s see how it actually tastes. To see if the spirit can tell us something else.
Strathearn Single Malt Batch 001 – Jason’s review
On the nose: a density and oiliness that hints as resin, varnish and worn conkers. Liquorice, ginger, spent tea leaves and rubbed brass. Foilage, cranberries, cherrywood and wild strawberries, with time chocolate. Adding water unleashes more oils, orange peel and nutty chocolate.
In the mouth: sherry sweet and cranberries that are suggestive of aggressive and young sherry casks. Toffee, nutmeg, cinnamon and a touch of heat. Vanilla on the short finish. Slightly oily, wood spice and adding water brings out a dry, yeasty, olive profile.
I’m left guessing as to what the distillery DNA and purpose of this release is? Is Douglas Laing even considering how they position Strathearn? Or are they treating it like any other independent bottling range with their style of branding? It’s whisky bingo with meaningless phrases like small-batch, handcrafted, surprisingly mature and my favourite: young whisky at its finest.
It just doesn’t sit well with me and that’s even prior to breaking the seal.
The contents themselves are youthful, overpriced and aggressively sherried. Indicative of many young scotch whiskies we’re seeing nowadays from the new generation of distilleries, or from independent bottlers, such as James Eadie, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and others.
I’m sure there are interesting casks at Strathearn that can showcase what this distillery is capable of. Whether or not we’ll fork out the cash to give it a second chance remains to be seen.
Strathearn Single Malt Batch 001 – Mark’s review
On the nose: blunt vanilla, rather than sherry bomb. I’d think there was some virgin oak in this, though it doesn’t seem to suggest that on the bottle. Not much else going on. All shades of thick, treacly vanilla with a hint of nutmeg and sandalwood. Perhaps hints of barley sugar and orange marmalade. A shade resinous.
In the mouth: Heavy on the wood and vanilla again, really aggressive stuff; later comes some cranberry tartness, blackberry jam. Cloves and nutmeg, very warming indeed but with the aggressive wood it doesn’t seem to work too well. The spirit seems thin, lacking in much texture; perhaps that’s why it doesn’t seem to fit with the over-the-top wood influence. Orange marmalade towards the finish, which is spicy as hell.
Feels like an attempt at hacking the process with some hefty wood, and as a result, it’s too blunt, lacking style, lacking in finesse. I don’t really have the impression the spirit underneath it all is that well made, not that I can tell from the death by barrel. I know we talk about much Scotch whisky knocking around in poor wood; this feels too far the other end of the scale, which reminds us that wood is just one part of the process and must be used with care; a balance is needed, not to mention a good spirit underneath it all.
Thanks to our Patreon supporters for their help in enabling us to purchase this bottle for this review.