When was the last time that you were able to try a whisky with absolutely no preconceptions? I can remember a handful of occasions when I would pick a random bottle from a pub shelf without having a clue about the brand name or what was inside. This phenomenon is very short-lived once you develop even the slightest bit of interest. With the internet at our fingertips or the recommendations of a barman, we already begin to introduce conscious bias into our tasting journey.
Nowadays, a visit to a whisky bar is usually accompanied by a hefty list of drams that are on a ‘to-try’ list, and after an evening of spirited debate with fellow barflies and barmen, I usually leave with a list twice as long as when I arrived. Each time we try one of these new recommendations, the experience inevitably comes with all the baggage of our prior knowledge, tastings, and conversations, so, in other words, with a whole host of preconceptions. To some degree or other, this has to colour our experience of that whisky.
Lately, I find myself craving those early anonymous whiskies when my opinion was based solely on the liquid. The closest we can come to this is through blind tastings, and I have really enjoyed the few I have done so far. To alleviate some of the lockdown boredom, and maintain some whisky based socialising, myself and two other virtual amigos, now affectionately self-styled as ‘The Tasting Trio’, have been sending each other blind tasting packs from our collections, with each of us taking it in turns to host the evening. It is proving to be a great way to challenge some of those ingrained preconceptions that we all develop. As a result, I think I will also be changing my post-lockdown approach to whisky bars. Perhaps I will give the barman a budget and tell him to pour me three drams of his choosing. Who knows what I might (re)discover!
This brings me to Raasay and this next London whisky club tasting in our series. Beforehand, I knew absolutely nothing about the distillery besides its existence. While waiting to release their first whisky, they have produced a series of releases sourced from a highland distillery and bottled under the name While We Wait, to give people an idea of what their house style might be like. I have not yet tasted any of these and, as luck would have it, I have neither read nor heard a single opinion on them. With no preconceived ideas or expectations, I had the refreshing ability to approach this tasting as close to blind as possible.
With that in mind, SPOILER ALERT! If you yourself are in the same boat and would like to remain free of any Raasay bias, then read no further. However, Mark did interview Alasdair Day about the Raasay distillery project back in 2017, it’s well worth a read before continuing.
As always, many thanks go to the club and the whole Raasay team for organising and hosting this virtual tasting. Six generous cask samples were sent out to attendees for an asking price of £30 including postage, and the distillery has generously agreed to donate £2.50 from each purchase to The Drinks Trust. If you were hoping to learn every single geeky distillery detail here today, then I am afraid that I will likely disappoint. I am generally more interested in the final liquid creations; however, I will try and share as much as I was able to learn from Alasdair during the tasting before getting stuck into the tasting notes.
The vast majority of the barley used by the distillery is Concerto barley from North East Scotland, however, they have been growing very limited quantities of their own barley for the last three seasons. After trialling various varieties, they have found most success so far with Iskria and Brage varieties, although they are only making sufficient quantities at the moment to fill about three casks per year. The malted barley destined for peated spirit is dried using highland peat, however, the first two seasons of locally grown Raasay barley were made using local peat only. The distillery is also using a mixture of yeast types, including Champagne, before fermenting for three to five days. Different cuts are also taken for the peated and unpeated spirit. The main goal with this production process is to produce an unpeated new make that is sweet, light and filled with dark fruits, and a heavier, more viscous peated spirit.
After much experimentation with wood types, they have settled on three different cask types that will form the components of their single malt release next year. The first is virgin Chinkapin oak, softer and less aggressive than Quercus alba, and designed to accentuate the fruit-forward spirit without adding too much vanilla and spice; the distillery uses a high toast and high char. The second are ex-Bordeaux wine casks which so far have been sourced from Chateaus Calon Segur, Palmer and Margeaux; these are filled without any treatment. Lastly, ex-rye casks from Woodford Reserve, which uses a mash bill of just over 50% rye, and this will hopefully bring more black pepper and spice than bourbon casks without being too overpowering. The six cask samples below showcase each of these maturing components. They were all drawn in the region of 25 to 29 months old, and are around 60.9% abv. Once mature, the peated and unpeated casks will be vatted together in various proportions to create what Raasay term a ‘lightly peated’ style of whisky, bottled at around 25ppm, and naturally presented with a minimum of 46% abv. The retail price will be in the region of £45 to £55.
There is also an additional sample below that a few of us club members were lucky enough to be able to purchase. This is the inaugural release, which can still be pre-ordered directly from the distillery website for £99. This is not to be confused with the single malt release next year made up of those cask types above. This will be a one-off run of 9000 bottles to celebrate the first official release from the distillery, and as a way to link the prior While We Wait series to next year’s release. This is a combination of peated and unpeated Raasay spirit matured for two years in bourbon casks, before finishing for a year in ex-Bordeaux red wine casks from Chateau Citran. They previously held three vintages of wine, the last being in 2017, and they were filled with spirit without any treatment. The sample we have below is only six months into this finishing period. The whisky will also be bottled at around 25ppm, at a minimum of 46%, and without added colouring or chill filtration.
The notes are in the same order as I tasted them on the evening, as well as chronological in terms of release dates, beginning with the inaugural release, and moving onto the six cask samples making up next year’s release.
Raasay Inaugural Release – review
Bordeaux red wine finish. Cask strength matured for 31 months.
Colour: Rose wine.
On the nose: Very sharp and tannic. Red wine vinegar, unripe raspberries and blackberries. Black pepper, nutmeg and sandalwood. A whiff of coal scuttle in the background. With water, the sharpness comes and goes with more sweet fruits. Ripe blackberries, cherries and dried figs. Cinnamon and a touch of marzipan also wafts in and out.
In the mouth: Much sweeter and peatier than the nose would suggest, and the two are harmonious. Ripe blackberries, red cherries and strawberry jam all interlaced with a floral and sooty peat. Building stewing spices, particularly cinnamon and clove, with a healthy black pepper kick. In the finish juicy red apples, pears, red grapes and toasted walnuts. There is a lingering funk of warm musty sultanas. Water dampens the black pepper spice while giving a much stickier mouthfeel. There are sticky dates and dried figs accompanied by notes of floral honey and caramel. The peat becomes less sooty and ashier, lasting well into the finish now.
Raasay Virgin Chinkapin oak, unpeated – review
Cask strength matured for 25 months.
On the nose: Caramel and vanilla are present without being too powerful, as intended it seems. Bramble jam, custard powder, cinnamon, white pepper. A hint of brown ale and rye bread. Water brings more of a yeasty note and almost something savoury. Perhaps nutritional yeast.
In the mouth: A serious slap in the face neat. Rich caramel and quite a bit of pepper heat. Blackberries, sultanas and icing sugar. Some rye and ale notes coming through in the finish. Water is very beneficial here, reducing the pepper kick and allowing more of the dark fruits and rye through. Barley sugar appears, as well as malt extract and date paste. A very long finish with some lingering cinnamon, cracked black pepper and burnt sugar.
Raasay Ex-Bordeaux red wine, unpeated – review
Cask strength matured for 26 months.
Colour: Rose wine.
On the nose: Ripe grapes, grape jelly. Just a hint of dark fruits in the background. Some peppermint and malt fighting their way through. A sour wine note at the end. The more water you add the more like wine this noses, oak and tannins galore.
In the mouth: Very very sweet, jammy and oily. Forest fruit jam before the alcohol and strong pepper heat take over. Water reduces the pepper spice. The jam is followed by some rye toast in the finish but the sweetness stays. Very cloying.
Raasay Ex-Woodford Reserve Rye, unpeated – review
Cask strength matured for 25 months.
On the nose: Creamy caramel fudge, sweet and salty popcorn and a drop of lemon oil. Piñones (sugar-coated pine nuts). Tangy freeze-dried raspberries in the background. Water brings fresh tart raspberries, whipped cream and cinder toffee.
In the mouth: Toffee apple and orange blossom honey. Lemon and orange zest. Lots of barley sugar, ripe blackberries and raspberries. A gentle pepper heat and cinnamon carry the flavours into the finish. Water brings a lovely background creaminess and rolled porridge oats. Dare I say it? Cranachan!
Raasay Virgin Chinkapin oak, peated – review
Cask strength matured for 28 months.
On the nose: What I would imagine a peated bourbon to smell like. Werther’s originals rolled in coal dust and vanilla pods. Bacon crisps and tobacco. There is something floral and fruity lurking in the background. With water, I get much more aromatic pipe tobacco and black pepper. A whiff of black cherry and blackberry.
In the mouth: This is all caramel and soot before alcohol burn and pepper heat takes over. Pipe tobacco in the aftertaste. Water is essential here. The caramel is less sweet but there is still plenty of soot, as well as toffee popcorn, barley sugar and dried apples alongside. The pepper spice is still present but less overpowering before shoe polish leads into the long finish with more soot, slightly bitter walnut skins and pipe tobacco ash.
Raasay Ex-Bordeaux red wine, peated – review
Cask strength matured for 28 months.
Colour: Rose gold.
On the nose: Raspberry jam, rubber boots, shoe polish, potpourri. A whiff of coal dust, but the peat is more medicinal here with antiseptic and bandages. Water brings some cowshed funk and dusty old leather-bound books.
In the mouth: Raspberry jam, salted butter and blackcurrant juice. Cinnamon, pepper and orange zest. A gentle sooty peat pervades the whole thing. Water tones down the sweetness and spice while amplifying the sooty peat, bringing slightly more balance. Hints of barbecued meat in the finish with lemon zest also.
Raasay Ex-Woodford Reserve Rye, peated – review
Cask strength matured for 29 months.
Colour: White wine.
On the nose: Toffee, ripe blackberries and tangy freeze-dried raspberries. Menthol, soot, charcoal, pine resin. Lemon rind, smoked honey (if such a thing exists) and a background warming spice of pepper, clove and cinnamon. Besides highlighting the citrus, water gets me no further.
In the mouth: Oily and creamy mouthfeel. All the sweet, peat and spice from the nose are pretty well replicated. Toffee, forest fruits, peppermint and coal dust. Heaps of barbecued lemons and floral honey. Cracked black pepper, cloves and cinnamon throughout. The finish has lasting notes of caramel, spices, wood smoke and ash, with a slightly bitter resinous aftertaste, but not unpleasant. Water makes the whole thing more harmonious, and brings a little added medicinal flare in the finish.
As a bonus dram I decided to blend the six cask samples in the following ratio purely as an experiment: 6 parts rye to 3 parts chinkapin to 1-part Bordeaux. I left this to sit for a week and a half before tasting.
Colour: Ripe wheat.
On the nose: Meaty and inviting. Soft brown sugar with plenty of citrus zest; lemon, orange and pink grapefruit. Floral honey, barley sugar, sticky raspberry jam and ripening blackberries. A gentle pepper and cinnamon spice. Just a faint whiff of woodsmoke and cask char in the background. Water brings out coal dust, peppermint and hospital wards.
In the mouth: Sweet and sticky dark fruits, raspberry and blackberry, with hints of heavier dried fruits, raisins, dates and figs. The brown sugar has turned to caramel, with barley sugar, honey, cinnamon and pepper. Orange and grapefruit peel. Sweet and tangy cherry juice leads the finish with peppermint, orange zest and wood smoke. Water completes the dram with a sooty peat that accompanies all the other flavours from start to finish.
Regarding the inaugural release, the youth of the wine finish is evident on the nose, however, the palate is rather more mature and enticing. The fruit-forward distillate is evident, with a well-judged level of peat, and stickier dark fruits coming through from the wine. Another six months in the cask will be beneficial no doubt. The price would be my only niggle, as £99 is a steep asking price for any three-year-old whisky. I grant that this will be a historic release and a first for Raasay on several fronts, so perhaps a premium for this is to be expected. Naturally, consumers will always vote with their wallets on whether a price is acceptable, and I hear that the release is proving very popular on pre-order.
Moving onto the six cask samples, I must confess that even without the burden of any preconceptions I let a little scepticism creep in regarding some of these more unusual cask types. I felt as though Raasay were unnecessarily trying to reinvent the wheel, perhaps simply to stand out from the usual crowd of bourbon and sherry releases. As it happens, I could not have been more wrong. The cask types are inspired choices. The stars of the show for me were the rye casks, especially the peated, and I would happily take them both exactly as they are now, matured for less than 30 months. The depth and maturity of flavour present came as a complete surprise, and they are totally unlike anything I have tasted before. The chinkapin casks also delivered, and were many people’s favourites of the tasting. Virgin oak can be a bit of a blunt instrument, offering only a barrage of spicy vanilla caramel, however, in this instance it really allows the distillate to shine through while adding layers of flavour and complexity. There was also a savoury aspect to both the peated and unpeated sample which was a moreish and welcome addition. I could not choose a favourite between them, as the two are really quite different and interesting in their own ways. Of the three cask varieties, I found that the wine casks were most aggressive. Clearly, since these are so young, the spirit has only had time to assimilate some of the more obvious characteristics of the wine without much oak influence.
Even so, the peated version is quite drinkable as is, though of course, their real purpose at this time will be as supporting actors in the blending process. Only time will tell how Alasdair decides to marry these six cask types, and in what proportions, however, my humble attempt at a blend did give me some idea of how all the different cask types begin to interact, while still retaining their individual characteristics. I very much look forward to seeing how the final product comes together next year. I must add, however, that the potential for future single cask releases of chinkapin and rye has me very excited indeed.
I think it is safe to say that Raasay is firmly on the radar of anyone who has been able to partake in one of their recent online tastings, and there will surely be a lot more noise to come as we approach the inaugural release date. I feel lucky to have tasted their spirit and formed an opinion without any external bias, and lucky especially given the quality of spirit, however for those of you who chose to read on, I apologise for having raised the curtain on your own experience. Consider yourselves influenced.