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.
Na Bràithrean Caol Ila 2011 Big Brother – review
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.
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.