Do you remember March? The pre-lockdown days? Before COVID-19 swarmed over our existence and forced wholesale changes and unforeseen difficulties?
To be honest, I hadn’t looked back at all or even dwelled on the old days given the relentless nature of the new way of life. That is, until, this whisky from Na Bràithrean landed on my doorstep, complete with a correct socially distanced delivery. Although our review of the Na Bràithrean Caol Ila 2011 Wee Brother was published in May, the article itself was completed by the 26th March. I do remember speaking with Na Bràithrean about publication and they weren’t in a rush, which was refreshing in itself. Society had become dominated by a now based behaviour and patience was in short supply. So, we put it to the tail end of the queue and let things run their natural course.
Of course, come May, the vice-like grip of COVID-19 had taken hold and we were all living extremely different lives. Everything changes and it has done, arguably forever. Even the simplest of things that we took for granted like meeting friends in person, having a social dram or visiting a local retailer and exploring what they have on offer. Were taken from us and for good reason. I don’t know about you, but going to a local drinking establishment isn’t high on my list of things to do, nor browsing for a speculative purchase in person. For Na Bràithrean, their second release (called Big Brother) and a different take on the original host cask, had become out of reach due to COVID-19. Brokers, warehouses and bottlers were in hibernation due to the lockdown measures at the time. Leaving releases to back up, bottling dates to slip by and for many, the sense of a pause button being firmly pushed down with no end in sight.
We did in our previous review manage a taster of the Big Brother release as work in progress and maturing quietly down in Wigtownshire. It wasn’t the finished article. Would a COVID-19 enforced nap, allow the cask and liquid to come together more? I let things be, until Na Bràithrean contacted me about the finalised Big Brother bottling and kindly sent one over to investigate. So, we’ll do that below. I’ll also dig out what remains of their debut and give a comparison – not in terms of tasting notes, but rather, being able to judge the differences the additional cask brings. On paper, the approach is refreshing and allows an increasingly more informed and experienced consumer the ability to judge for themselves.
Generally, finishing gets a bad rap and rightly so. We’ve seen it deployed as a blunt tool to hide imperfections and bring some variety to a predominantly ex-bourbon cask matured inventory. Those bottlers stuck in the hellish monthly outturn format – I have little sympathy as this is their choice – increasingly, have to deploy finishes to bring something different. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is an obvious example, but we’ve also seen (until a COVID-19 hibernation) Cadenhead’s bringing more finishes to their releases. More worryingly, we’ve seen independents like James Eadie delivering more finishes with their irregular outturns.
Let’s add that finishing can be a good thing when it’s done right. There’s a certain artistic skill to making that initial judgement and then observing how things develop, before deciding when the pinnacle has been reached. Many of the finishes I try nowadays lack harmony and fail to justify the admission price. Bottlers must also show some restraint, as it is easy to lose yourselves in a vortex of finishes and layers. Trapped in a labyrinth with no way out, which explains the Jura Seven Wood and some of the Dalmore releases that have become a mere component of the bric-a-brac stacking of casks utilised.
I wasn’t hugely taken by the work in progress version of this release when I tried it back in early March, however it has had at least a further 33%-50% longer to mature based on the duration of the finish. So, on paper at least, we should have a more finished product and a sense of symmetry.
We’ll hit the pause button on talking about finishes until the conclusions. Instead, it is easy to overlook the original genesis here being Diageo’s Caol Ila distillery. Their Islay death star when it comes to production and the source of many Islay whiskies across the world: whether named or existing under a pseudonym. A distillery that is taken very much for granted. Yet encompasses what Diageo strives to achieve as consistency. A dreaded word to many, who prefer a more thrill-based approach to whisky. Yet a bad Caol Ila? I’m struggling to remember one and that’s an achievement.
This release was distilled on 5th April 2011 and bottled on 27th May 2020 at 9 years of age. 170 bottles were produced at a robust 58% strength and this release was finished in a Pedro Ximénez sherry quarter cask for 6 months. This is available directly from Na Bràithrean for £80, or from Master of Malt for £84.95.
Na Bràithrean Caol Ila 2011 Big Brother – review
On the nose: hickory wood chips mingle well with the BBQ vibe assisted by sticky soya sauce. Foilage, dark chocolate and cinnamon bark. Freshly cracked walnuts, beefy jerky and charcoal. A classic mix of thick smoke, liquorice, bacon crisps, blackcurrant and aniseed balls. Water brings out a sweeter cinnamon, dampness, a slight smoke, caramel and grilled sausage.
In the mouth: much more harmonious than previously; things have certainly settled and the peat has stepped back. Burnt toast, ham hock and chocolate flow into fresh soot and worn leather. Some foliage, fresh brownie, aniseed and dried fruit mixed up with all-spice and star anise. Adding water upsets the balance in favour of the wood, so approach with caution.
Well, those extra months in the quarter cask have paid dividends. Whereas the work in progress felt jumbled and unsettled. This is more cohesive, especially on the nose, while the palate isn’t as defined. I don’t think this limitation was going to be resolved in such a small cask and there is always the danger of pushing things too far towards the wood. Instead, this has been bottled just in time and lining both up for comparison, the original ex-bourbon maturation still has the edge (just) for me.
In saying that, it strikes me we have the opportunity to do something else here. Maybe something Na Bràithrean has overlooked and have a little fun? Let’s blend the cask back together? In doing so, this Caol Ila becomes 8 years old and circa 59% strength. For this, I used a 50/50 ratio with 2cl from each release and also gave it about 10 minutes initially in the glass to settle down, like any good family reunion.
Na Bràithrean Caol Ila 2011 Sister – review
On the nose: coffee beans and honey with ginger nuts. Some mace and milk chocolate. A floral sweetness mingles well with the coastal elements that feel fresh and zingy compared to the quarter cask. Artificial vanilla, cotton candy, dried reeds and baked salt crust.
In the mouth: driftwood, toffee and a thick smoke. Fresh popcorn, dirty vanilla, some oak and Farley’s rusks on the finish with cracked black pepper.
As expected this is a mix of both releases and a more rounded and elegant touch of sherry. Scoring wise we’re in the same realm again, but I’d probably pick this out as offering the best of both worlds. The strength also means you can play with water and extend the lifespan of your purchases. If the quarter cask is too much sherry for your liking, then you know what to do, and introduce a sister creation.
We’ve added a Master of Malt commission link, should you prefer buying from them.