What if I told you that you were going to get to taste a single cask whisky from an undisclosed distillery, selected by a group of people you’d never heard of?
Would you be excited? Trepidatious? Skeptical, perhaps? Or maybe you’d be perfectly nonplussed? After all, it’s so often the names and reputations in whisky that arouse our passions, be they positive or negative. “I love such-and-such a distillery”, or “I’ve decided that so-and-so independent bottlers are knaves.” We’re acutely brand aware, even if it’s to our own detriment. What would it be like to taste a whisky stripped of all the signifiers that would normally compromise our objectivity?
We’re not getting all the way to a proper blind tasting today, but we’re getting closer than normal. This is a whisky whose only clue to its origin is the geographic location of the distillery. Fortunately, that location is an island that has only two distilleries in consideration as the source of this whisky, given its age.
We’ve got a decent collection of “Orkney” independent bottlings here: A.D. Rattray, Anon, Berry Bros./Whisky Barrel, North Star Spirits, Thompson Bros., Whiskybase. In all these cases, the whisky obviously came from Highland Park. Until some seismic shifts in the landscape occur, it is always thus when the “O” word is front and center on the label. For my part, I’ve previously reviewed a quasi-anonymous Orkney whisky in the form of Single Cask Nation’s “Stones of Stenness.” That was excellent and, after a seemingly endless parade of underwhelming official bottlings from Highland Park, it renewed my appreciation for this distillery.
So, I was in an optimistic mood when I received this “Orkney” whisky, bottled by WFFA. This leads us to the second part of our mystery: What is WFFA? I don’t know… or didn’t, at least when I set out to write this review. Googling yields little more than a few oblique references to the group, which organizes itself on Facebook. One consistent refrain was that, like the Germs, what they do is secret.
Of course, being a secretive bunch, WFFA has done what any clandestine operation would do: it put a list of its members’ full names on the label of their whisky. I’m actually not joking. There you have it: all 77 of them, from “Duane Connon” to “I am not John McDougall.” I can’t say for certain but, given the devilish cleverness of this lot, I’d wager that that last one is, in fact, John McDougall.
Based on this list, I was able to track down and apprehend one of the members. After an extended period of solitary confinement punctuated by bouts of inhumane torture (repeatedly playing “Barbie Girl” by Aqua at high volume, if you must know), I was able to break him psychologically and he gave up the following information:
“WFFA” stands for “Whisky Free For All.” It’s a Facebook group of friends and acquaintances, some of whom occasionally come across a compelling cask for the group to bottle independently. None of this would seem to necessitate any cloak-and-dagger subterfuge, but hey: you gotta get your kicks one way or another.
The label provides some additional specifics: this single malt Scotch whisky was distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2017, at the age of 17 years. It is from cask #27 and is labeled “Kirkwall B1989 Orkney.” It is non-chill filtered and has no added color. My source informs me this cask produced 266 bottles. At-cost price for this (for those in the club) was reportedly £65; I found an auction record that indicated a bottle of this traded hands for £80 in 2018. This sample was generously provided by Ryan, and cheers to him for passing it along.
WFFA B1989 Orkney Single Malt – Review
Color: Light beer.
On the nose: Spring-like to start, with floral aromas abounding. This has a pronounced malty note, mingling with the yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread. With some more time and patient sniffing, I start to get abundant citrus notes of limes, lemons, and grapefruit. There’s a faintly herbal note of spearmint leaves. The bourbon barrel has imparted a whiff of creamy oak and a gentle vanilla nuance that is very subtle and harmoniously integrated with the rest of the elements at play here.
In the mouth: Starting with a piquant nip of cayenne pepper, this quickly transitions to more of a creamy texture, with some richly sweet notes of vanilla buttercream. This blooms with a mouth-coating heat as it progresses toward the center of the tongue. Throughout, there is a richly citric and tart note of lemon. At the top of the mouth, this has a mint-accented minerality. The whisky finishes with a persistent saline note of seawater and iodine, as well as a bit more slightly astringent woodiness, which is my only nit to pick here.
This is very similar in certain regards to the Stones of Stenness, so much so that if I were forced to hazard a guess I’d confidently say this is also “not Scapa.” But then, we knew that. While the flavors on the former were a little more diverse and pronounced, this still retains many of the elements that made that bottle so pleasing.
If I were able to procure additional bottles of this at £60, or even £80, I would definitely do so. It certainly compares favorably to the $180 I paid for the Stones of Stenness bottle. The whisky isn’t quite as good, but the price is more than reflective of that difference. On net, I’m giving this a solidly positive score and commending the folks who, working under cover of their given names and surnames, brought us another reason not to forget about Orkney.