Time is a spurtle for the porridge of emotion. It can mix in and overlay awe and grandeur not only to that which deserves it in its own right – the pyramids, the Parthenon, the Patrick Stewart – but to even the most banal of bibelots. It is time which presses noses to glass cabinets filled with nothing more than some Saxon peasant’s bric-a-brac. Age, it is often implied, is a thing to be respected for its own venerable sake.
It is the fiddle to nostalgia’s tune; the blueprint to misty eyes and hamstrung criticism. As Taylor has so often pointed out, the marketing for ninety per cent of American whiskey is predicated on just this erroneous rosy tint. Scotch is no better and nor is much of England’s contemporary political rhetoric. The men in my family (myself absolutely included), being collectively something of a distillate of the more harmless British tropes, have always had something of a goggle-eyed reverence for time. My cousin did an Egyptology degree and is debatably still not the most pertinacious culprit. Rather fortunately, most of the women in our family are scientists.
Awe isn’t the only arrow in time’s quiver, of course. It can, at turns, sharpen regret, dull grief, heighten insignificance, stale love, polish joy, concentrate obsession, file the corners off good and evil and make you late for the bus. I have found myself dwelling at length (time again!) on it recently, perhaps because lockdown has chiselled out so many long hours and perhaps simply because I find myself staring down the barrel of thirty. (Hopefully not the latter, as I’ve never really subscribed to the mandatory terror that one’s fourth decade is supposed to inspire. Largely because the geophysicist, who is thirty-four, spends most of her time sitting cross-legged on the floor like an Infant Department fresher.)
Whisky obsesses over time. Mark Reynier once called it “the tyranny of the age statement”, and has since been partially complicit in, if not its overthrowing, then certainly its closer scrutiny. As marketing departments at bigger operations continue to fetishise wood, and as smaller, more interested setups bottle sweet young things with more focus on distillate, the empire of time has lost a certain degree of territory. But still we drinkers pore over the numbers on bottles, gloat over “dusties” and are quick to flaunt and gush over anything old enough to have done jury duty in Cleon’s Athens. (I did warn you.)
I am no different. Today’s purchase was entirely down to favourable crosshairs of age and price. Namely thirty-one years old and, thanks to a flash sale on Master of Malt, something like £75. It is another blended malt in a long series of well-aged, good value expressions from the independent bottler North Star. We have covered their “Vega” blended malts in some detail in these pages, thanks to articles from Phil, Jason and Phil again, and we have written up a good few of their other bottlings too. Today’s glassful is another blended malt, Sirius, which differs from the Vega series in being a blend of Highland malts, rather than a blend of Speysides. Personally, and somewhat ridiculously, I have always swung more towards Highlands than Speysides as a region. “Ridiculous”, because there is no such thing as relevant regionality in Scotch, really, and because the enormous Highlands region is home to a good number of stinkers, just as Speyside is home to plenty of distilleries which are exceptional. My Highland “preference”, at least as a buyer, is pure Burns-esque romanticism, for the most part, perhaps concentrated to a degree by my having lived there for a while.
Anyhow, the whiskies (“from the finest distilleries”, the copy assures me) that made up this blend were all distilled in 1988 and have been aged in first-fill ex-bourbon casks before bottling at a venerable 31 years old and an eye-catchingly low cask strength of 43.1%. I wonder whether a handful of rogue casks had slipped below the all-important 40 and needed beefing up by vatting in order to regain legal status. I don’t suppose it matters terribly, just idle conjecture. Matt at the Dramble, who is very diligent about this sort of thing, suggests that the whisky has “a core of Clynelish”, which should certainly get a few mouths watering. But have I made a value purchase the like of which is seldom seen in modern whisky any more, or have I been hornswoggled by the siren song of time?
This is now available from the Whisky Exchange for £135, or just £116.95 from Master of Malt, but sadly that flash sale has passed.
North Star Spirits Sirius 31 year old – review
Colour: Runny honey.
On the nose: That’s a dusky, dusty sort of a nose, that is. Dried vanilla, candle wax, long-unopened books. Dried orange rind and dried apricot. Dried, dried, dried. Except that those first-fill casks have pumped this with marzipan and icing and hazelnut and fresh coconut shavings. With the result that we have both big oak and big distillate(s). There’s lots to like here, and all with a rather comforting, settled sort of inflection.
In the mouth: Sweeter and juicier than expected from the nose. Honey, sugar syrup and more marzipan. Loads of vanilla. Good intensity for the proof; nothing feels watery or faint. There’s a nice waxy viscosity too, but perhaps this is the point at which time and cask have put that smidge too much pressure on the spirits within. It’s still perfectly tasty, but less complex and distinctive than the nose. A little drying woodiness at the death. Just a touch.
Yes, I’d say this was worth seventy-five of my hard-wrangled pounds. At full price (indeed at discounted price) there are plenty of whiskies which match or exceed the quality, but none of nearly the same age. If you are looking for the particular and distinct flavours that come with extended maturation, or are simply after a big number on a bottle, this will do you very nicely. Far more nicely, indeed, than many of the ancient-but-anodyne and very expensive independently bottled single malts which have sat in some godawful garden centre reject until they’re old enough to sell by dint of age alone.
In short, one of those comforting and comfortable whiskies that are just very nice to sip through a long evening to varying degrees of attention. Goodness knows we’ve needed a few of those recently.
Image kindly provided by the Whisky Exchange. And there are commission links here! Be warned! But feel safe that they don’t affect our judgement whatsoever.
True story, I was in Royal Mike whiskies in December looking for this release and the sales agent not only hadn’t heard of it he hadn’t heard of North Star! There he was, questioning me if such a bottler even existed and if so what distilleries they’ve bottled.
In any case, I acquired a bottle back in Australia. I own a 41 year old Vega too. As you say, something about these age statements humbles and beguiles. In MALT tradition both bottles are open. For whatever reason I openly idolise North Star – be it the aesthetic, the price, the mysterious provenance of certain releases…It all appeals
Hi Mark – thanks for reading!
Gosh, that is a surprise. Perhaps it was a newer member of staff though – I remember on my first day in the wine industry (seven years ago today, as it happens) a customer came up to me and started asking about Verdicchio. I didn’t have a clue what he was on about. It’s certainly an intense learning curve when you’re new to a shop floor. Benefit of the doubt, perhaps!
Brilliant that you’ve got the Vega too – seemed to sell through double quick. And glad you’ve got them both open. North Star are certainly doing some interesting, tasty and well-priced things.
I bought this for our club when it was on flash sale. The offer of 31 years by an independent bottler with a good track record was too tempting for that price.
Havent opened it yet but looking forward to it.
I’m sure there are many whiskies 20 years younger which are just as nice for the same price. However, to try what proper age does to a whisky, it’s seems like a great starting point.
I have been supporting Iain since he started his great company and there have been some crackers at very reasonable prices. He even bottled a decent Glenrothes which is saying something. This is not a great 31 year old but it is a great whisky for the price and I do not think anyone will regret buying and opening it.