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Na Bràithrean Caol Ila 2011 Wee Brother

A logical extension of our whisky journey is to consider the possibilities of releasing your own whisky. For many years there was a certain innocence to such a dream, as well as a whisky romance. Casks were relatively cheap and plentiful. Becoming an armchair bottler was more accessible than it is today. The reality now is very different, with a very competitive marketplace and the price of casks forever rising. Those that take the step are to be applauded and where possible supported.

With that introduction, you’ll know that we have a new bottler today in the form of Na Bràithrean (na brah-rin), which is Scottish Gaelic for the brothers, and their debut release. Interestingly, their approach is a little different and on paper isn’t just a novelty. I’ve often wondered why is there a need to finish casks across the industry. Was the original host that mundane, flawed or full of potential that the approach was warranted? As mere consumers, we’ll never know, as we’re told master blenders or other fanciful whisky titles have made the decision that it is final. Yes, absolute, as we’re not allowed to taste what went before. Whether their judgement was indeed correct or if there something else at play.

By this, I mean, take the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, who don’t lack an inventory of casks. What they do lack is an inventory of different types of casks. Hence the pile ‘em high approach to finishing we’ve seen in recent years. It’s a quick fix to a legacy problem. Regulars will know for many years, if a cask failed their tasting panel at the time, it was dumped into a Sauternes cask for a short duration to provide some gusto. Nowadays, the gloves are off and finishing is more widespread and all the time we are left to ask, why?

To quote issue 46 of their Unfiltered magazine, ‘additional maturation, or finishing, can create ever greater complexity and flavour diversity’, before highlighting ‘our Spirits Team aims for about two years of additional maturation, using a huge range of casks to impart a variety of flavours.’ And underlining their commitment to finishing by rounding off with, ‘even design bespoke casks for our additional maturation programme – and to bring you an endless variety of outstanding whiskies.’

I’m a firm believer in actions speak louder than words and while I’ve not tasted every release across the last couple of years, I’ve managed a decent haul. High scores (and by that I mean 8 and upwards) are a scarce commodity when it comes to the SMWS, which is where I’d place ‘outstanding’ on our Malt scoring guide.

As members, onlookers, consumers and such-like, we’re left to question why when it comes to a finish. The audit trail has been scrubbed clean. All we have is the final outcome. We’re unable to see, taste and smell that pivotal moment where it was decided a cask needed a new host. As we venture further into our whisky journey, we become wiser, more inquisitive and more demanding, or in my case very demanding. Whisky isn’t cheap and not everything is good, acceptable or even outstanding. Finishing, acing, double maturation or additional maturation – call it what you will – needs to provide a justified end result.

The effectiveness of the approach will only be known to a small few. As consumers, we’re excluded and left to enjoy, stomach or leave the final release. More of us crave insight, new experiences and that ability to fully judge the pivotal decision. The doors to such tangible knowledge are locked firmly shut to outsiders. We’re told everything is good, or outstanding. We must have faith in the wisdom of those making such decisions. Hence why my faith in my bottlers, master blenders and spirit teams has been battered in recent times.

That additional maturation should open up a realm of possibilities, but we’ve seen it mismanaged by the majority of bottlers in recent times. Used to cover up flaws in an initial cask, or bring some life to a fairly inept expression. The industry band-aid or Polyfilla that can always be relied upon. Just chuck it into a sherry hogshead for a couple of years and then you have this unique or outstanding expression. Except that isn’t the case. Finishing gets a bad rap because it is often deployed for the wrong reasons and this motivation comes through in the final product.

From memory, I know there have been a scattering of releases from independents, such as Dramfool, where you could compare and contrast whiskies that had moved on from the original cask.

Na Bràithrean is the first that I’m aware of to actually make the crossroads the heart of their bottling range. The concept in their own words is pretty straightforward: ‘separating her (the cask) into two runs allowing two sets of unique bottles of Single Malt Scotch Whisky to be born each with his own distinct flavour. The wood used to mature whisky is crucial to the flavour profile. Each brother is finished independently using different kinds and sizes of barrels to influence the flavour of our whisky. Our end product is two bottles of the same spirit with different personalities and characteristics’.

And getting back to that introduction for a moment: what distillery would be an ideal candidate for a debut release? I envisage many of you would reply with Caol Ila and that’s what we have right here. A widely available whisky, one with a good reputation. A whisky that taps into the fashionable dynamic of peat and Islay. A distillate that does lend itself to other types of casks when given the opportunity.

Taking up the family dynamic, the original and younger of the split releases is called wee brother with big brother following in May 2020. Na Bràithrean were extremely kind to send over a bottle and a wee sample of the currently maturing big brother release, which will be 9 years old when bottled. For now, wee brother, was distilled on 5th April 2011 and bottled on 8th January 2020 from a refill bourbon hogshead. The split resulted in 103 bottles being put aside for this specific release (ours being number 23) and a pleasing 60.3% strength. The retail price is £75 and hopefully, the big brother, won’t be too much more.

Na Bràithrean Caol Ila 2011 Wee Brother – review

Colour: a light haze.

On the nose: like opening a tin of hot dogs with salty brine and a meaty aspect. Brown sugar, sea salt, mint leaf and an engine oil residue. Toasted pine nuts, salted caramel, vanilla, pencil shavings and hazelnuts. There’s peat of course and plenty of gusto, but held in tandem with the other aromas. Pineapple comes through with time and chocolate alongside chocolate, salmon and Kiwi Fruit. Adding water reveals more fruit, pine sap, a mineral aspect and grapefruit.

In the mouth: a robust oily texture that is a notch up from several of the SMWS releases I’ve had lately. It feels less fragile, more vigorous and potent: it’s dangerous. Charred beach wood, salty, campfire smoke, black tea reinforces that smoky nature. There’s apples and kindling, black tea leaves, a little smoke and plenty of ash. Adding water reveals white chocolate, vanilla, more oils and lingering smoke.

Score: 7/10

Na Bràithrean Caol Ila 2011 Big Brother – review

Colour: golden.

On the nose: brassy, hazelnuts, toffee and a cloud of lingering smoke. Less peat initially and oils. Popcorn, syrup, honeycomb and milk chocolate.

In the mouth: more mellow, restrained almost with dried reeds, coal bunker, toffee, ashy, ginger, drying in places and woody.

Score: 5/10

Conclusions

Firstly, I do like the map style labelling: simple, effective and clean. Then, there is the question of the price that we do consider here and I’m sure many of you in these times will question. £75 for an 8-year-old? I’d say we’re almost where the market is nowadays. Islay commands a premium as many retailers will tell you peat sells despite an abundance of casks. Forest Whisky, for instance, bottled a slightly older Caol Ila, reduced the strength to 48% and are asking £78 for the experience.

The SMWS will happily ship you an 11-year-old Caol Ila for £69 with their Cheshire Cat being the most recent release. That sold out pretty promptly underlining the point again. Smaller bottlers also don’t have the luxury of buying power and they’ll often have to go via brokers who will, obviously, take their cut. Ultimately, the market determines whether the price is right so lets see.

From the bottle straight, this is a very forceful and ultimately enjoyable Caol Ila. Frankly, it doesn’t need a finish whatsoever, but now we have the ability to judge. And it is quite a change. My own thoughts are the cask and spirit need more time to integrate on the Big Brother release. The original whisky feels purer and good to go. Whereas the finish needs more time to integrate, and as such, things clash: flavours and aromas have yet to truly define themselves.

Overall, something different and liquid for thought. Some of you may want to compare and contrast. Others might be looking for a very good Caol Ila. Both can be satisfied here. Finishes must be applied with care and patience. If not, then things take a step backward possibly for good, or until mother nature steps in with time. Let’s hope we have more opportunities to compare from this indie.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Matt says:

    Lovely looking bottle and a great review! I’m an Islay novice but looking to get into the peatier side of things. Wondering if you might recommend a bottle or two for a beginner? I was thinking of a Caol Ila 12, but am open to ideas!

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Matt

      It depends on how much peat you want to experience. Bunnahabhain is pretty low on this scale before you get into the peatier whiskies. Ardbeg 10 is one that is consistently good and generally available. Kilchoman is getting better (as you can see from our reviews) and there’s plenty of Caol ila out there to try.

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        Matt says:

        Brilliant, thank you! Think I’ll start at the lower levels. Currently enjoying the hint of peatiness in the Kilkerran 12, but would like to increase from there…

          1. Avatar
            Matt says:

            I have not – will take a look. Are the Springbank 10 and the standard Longrow the best place to start with each?

  2. Roy
    Roy says:

    Must be my current mood, so apologies… we bemoan the potential scandal of Japanese whisky and its questionable authenticity, but I think Islay is another ticking industry timebomb. For his 50th last year, my brother-in-law took his partner and two other couples to Bowmore and Lagavulin for a long weekend (remember going outside?, wee nostalgia moment there). They loved the experience, but were thoroughly disillusioned when told most of the materials are shipped in, then shipped back out to mature, probably next to Glasgow Airport (or similar less idyllic environs). On pricing, I wish the Na Bràithrean guys well, but I think we might find that this is where the market peaked, pre-COVID. I suspect the hundreds of similarly priced NAS or immature “premium” priced bottles will gather dust for the foreseeable (a glance at MoM, TWE, RMW et al would suggest dozens of <12yo and "juiced" whisky isn't grabbing buyers attention when pitched at £60-80 a pop).

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Roy

      Some cabin fever taking hold?

      Seriously though, the Islay question is relevant and one that the SWA seeks to avoid I feel, especially as the majority of the big boys have interests on the island. If you truly want an Islay whisky, based on what we know as a consumer, then you’d have to go for Kilchoman with Bruichladdich following closely behind; noting that its malting operation is performed in Inverness.

      I’ve raised this query on a couple of topics and even tagged the SWA on at least one, who failed to respond. Yet, as the marketplace becomes more educated, then we will start asking questions such as these.

      Environmental concerns about the island and warehousing all this whisky would be valid. Although if we look to Speyside, I still cannot understand how Macallan was allowed to build all those giant warehouses up and over that hillside. Money talks is arguably the answer. And in our case, if we’re not happy with something, or the asking price, then we should move on. Whisky enthusiasts I find are far too forgiving and need to be more vocal in their feedback when faced with disappointment.

      Likewise, I had similar initial concerns about the pricing here, but it seems within the field we find ourselves in right now and the liquid won me over. The sherry finish is still maturing, so it is a work in progress (thanks partially due to COVID-19), but even so, checking the price of £85 this morning, I wouldn’t pay that.

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Roy
        Roy says:

        Yeah, think I’m going a bit stir crazy, and know there are many 100x worse off than I, so should have no real excuse to feel a bit blue (least the weather has been relatively good eh?). I don’t necessarily want more authentic Islay, I just don’t want to pay a premium for the illusion of authenticity. I think in retrospect we’ll see the COVID thing having a huge impact on a whole range of economies. If Apple decide this is the moment to launch a “value” proposition, you wonder what it might mean to a luxury whisky bubble that few believe will ever burst. Until it does. For now, suppliers like Carn Mor, Signatory, Bartels, G&A Mitchell and Cadenheads will get the bulk of my discretionary budget – for bringing value more often than not. Agree entirely that certain opaque SWA rules (provenance, ingredients etc) are untenable in a modern world. Few other products gets cut the same slack.

        1. Jason
          Jason says:

          Hopefully, some of the bottlers will spark back into life soon. Missing Cadenhead’s the most right now, but trying to support local shops and other indies.

  3. Avatar
    Nikkhil says:

    Nice review JJ. Didn’t AD Rattray do something similar with the Octaves project? I would agree with Roy’s comment. Too much of raw spirit being released at lighter fuel ABV. Pricing upwards of £65 for a barely legal whisky is now normal. COVID-19 has turned the tables on how all of us will approach our lives, at least till the vaccine is out and perhaps even post that. And whisky will not be immune to that change.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Thanks, Nikkhil,

      Yes they did and I did review that, but that was more of a deviation or experiment, rather than the central premise of their whole range so a wee bit different.

      As for COVID-19, we’ll have to see what the ramifications are – I don’t think anything is certain right now.

  4. Avatar
    Stephan says:

    The bashing of SMWS is boring. You are delivering great content but bashing the SMWS nearly every week one or more times, just my feelings, is nothing more than boring.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Stephan

      Thanks for commenting and I checked back for you – the last mention of the SMWS on this site was their April outturn article on the 12th April. That includes any brief mentions within reviews, as well, so your point is a little off, but I’m happy to discuss it.

      We’re committed to covering their outturns on a monthly basis, the May article has been held up with COVID-19 warehouse and dispatch issues, but it should hopefully be with us in the next week or thereabouts. If you don’t like it, then please just skip it. However, we are here to provide an honest view and unless we’ve been extremely unlucky in the bottles we’ve purchased lately, the whisky hasn’t been great, nor some of the commercial decisions that have been made.

      That’s not just our view, that’s the view of many I know, who are members currently or have left. The May article will have positives and negatives, such is life and I hope the whisky rebounds from their recent form. And if you see it, you’ll see that others have had their input into those criticisms. Nothing would give me greater pleasure to give a 7 or more and tell people they need to buy this whisky.

      The mention here is entirely appropriate. If I was to take a straw poll of bottlers who finish on a regular basis to our audience, I’d expect the SMWS to be top, or in a medal position. As such, as this bottler brings us the finish as a twist, their mention is valid and warranted. Hopefully, that makes more sense now and keep on reading.

      Thanks, Jason.

  5. Graham
    Graham says:

    Jason,

    Great thoughts again. I like this idea a lot but to be honest shop around and you’ll get a lot more for your money. I’m not convinced that £150+ for both bottles is worth the fee plus if future bottles are staggered releases you may not secure both negating much of the point. However this plays into your bottle size discussion on the Patreon page. I would consider buying both as a pair of half bottles for £75 that sounds like fun.

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