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Na Bràithrean Caol Ila 2011 Big Brother

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

Colour: tobacco.

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.

Score: 7/10

Conclusions

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

Colour: caramel.

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.

Conclusions

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.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Roy
    Roy says:

    This looks interesting, but its twice the price of North Star’s latest similarly aged Islay, with none of their provenance. Sorry to be so negative, but for the same money we can get a 30yo Armagnac with genuine (shoot me now) terroir. There’s so many start-up indie’s and new distilleries trying to cash in on the whisky boom, with offerings that often look really poor value…

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Roy

      I’m wary of that NS release, maybe it’s just the name! It isn’t a cask strength release as far as I know, instead being taken down to 50%, so that helps shift the price down a little.

      Value is always in the eye of the beholder. Take, for instance, the NS Bowmore and Longmorn’s that are just appearing. A big issue for many is the price, but try them if you’re fortunate to have the opportunity, then it becomes more realistic. Same applies here. I touched upon the price aspect in the original bottling, I didn’t see the need to go over old ground again on this sequel.

      The price here is reasonable for what you’re getting. I can see those SMOS parcel Caol Ila’s, a much bigger bottler, bigger outturn, retailing for around £70, yet I don’t see much criticism headed their way with certain releases on pricing.

      Cheers, Jason.

  2. Roy
    Roy says:

    Fair points Jason, I just feel bleak at the direction of travel generally. The last thing I need is any encouragement to buy that NS Longmorn, it took superhuman willpower to walk away from the one store in Glasgow that I found with stock. Need to occasionally remind myself that you can’t buy everything, even some of those FOMO bottles!

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Ah, I know prices of casks are rising, but it looks like sales of some of the larger blends are falling and possibly single malts as well. Whether that’s COVID or tariffs, or more likely a combination isn’t the concern, rather, the knock-on effect might be more casks coming to market and hopefully a reduction in cost.

      I wrote something the other day about being faced with a bottle and coming up with a set of questions on whether to purchase it or not. From memory, I think it was a Clynelish. I didn’t nail the set of questions, but I’m walking away from so many nowadays. Quite often, something new appears and you forget about what you’ve left behind. The best thing is to say no more often…

      Cheers, Jason.

  3. Avatar
    T om F says:

    Roy is spot on. I too was unimpressed by the price, a sign of the whisky bubble getting ever more bloated. Even less impressed was I when reading on The Brothers website that they became whisky ethusiasts in 2017! Oh those long years in the industry wrestling with the dynamics of cask maturation & finishing, move over Billy Walker your time is up! Grifters & chancers are piling in to the whisky “bis” with the hope of making a killing, there hasn’t been such a whisky frenzy since the last time there was a whisky frenzy which was just before the bubble burst in the 1980’s. When this bubble bursts a lot of new people will lose a lot of money & some established distilleries who pay more attention to bottle, label design & mysterious tales will also loose out.Ah well every cloud ———————-

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Tom

      Thanks for commenting, tasting the whisky puts the price into perspective. While not everyone can taste before purchasing, this one is reasonable for what it is.

      It popped up on Master of Malt yesterday and had sold out within a few hours. As much as £80 seems for a young whisky nowadays. It seems to be the market and the market wants more of this. We are seeing new distilleries charging as much, if not more, for a product half of its age. And the Bimbers I had last night weren’t worth £80, or a match for this. But that’s just my opinion, like I respect your own. At least this bottling won’t be destined for the secondary market.

      However, it is a bit harsh highlighting how long they’ve been in whisky, as it doesn’t have anything to do with the Caol Ila. It’s like me knocking back a perspective writer, as they haven’t done 5 years on a blog that no one has read before, or Ned at Waterford, who’s never blended whisk(e)y until now – not good enough fella! You’ve not done your time!

      Maybe, they got lucky with a good cask? We’ll see won’t we? As you rightly suggest, the ones with the right plan and emphasis on quality will see out any storms ahead.

      Cheers, Jason.

  4. Graham
    Graham says:

    Jason,

    Thanks for the update. As a father of two boys I was delighted to pick up the pair and look forward to cracking these open in 15 – 20 years when they will feel special and the price paid will be very distant. I’m rather hoping that we remain a family of four but if my wife gets her way I’ll be sure to use your blending trick to include the third child!

    Hopefully future releases will be done side-by-side so you can be sure of securing both bottles as otherwise I don’t see the ‘value-added’ aspects for the price.

    But certainly a fun concept.

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