There’s a reason that Mark and Taylor and Angus MacRaild and probably Matt McKay sit on one tier – the top tier – when it comes to whisky writing and that the rest of us who scratch away with the digital quill perch on various ledges beneath them. And it’s not just eloquence or depth of knowledge, important though such things unquestionably are. What really elevates each of them is the confidence, clarity and – above all – consistency of their voice.
Whatever they write about, it’s their own, developed, idiosyncratic tone that comes through. You can smell an Angus article from a dozen hyperlinks away. Taylor could write about microwaves and we’d know it was him (not least, mind you, for his signature one-sentence-paragraph opening flourish; a sort of authorial clearing of the throat.) Article in, article out there is a clear, strong and unique tone of voice that would be identifiable without the writer’s name at the top of the piece. (I was going to say “week in, week out”, but Mark barely writes monthly these days, being too busy designing bottle tops for Waterford or soil massaging or making tea for their agronomist or whatever his job, of which I am not in the least jealous, actually is.)
When it comes to whisky we can substitute “tone of voice” for “distillery character”, and once again it is the most important and potentially elusive element that a spirit can possess. One that can only be wholly revealed – as opposed to guessed at – through the gradual releasing of a significant number of bottlings over a significant period of time.
Distillate character is a single malt’s raison d’être. Those which are most distinctive tend to come from the distilleries most lionised by whisky enthusiasts – Springbank, Talisker, Clynelish, Laphroaig. In the latter three cases it is, more often than not, the perceived sanding down of this distinctiveness that sharpens the grievances long-standing fans have against distillery owners and core ranges. It is also the reason that independent bottlings, unfiltered and at a higher strength, are so popular. There’s no point having a special tone of voice if its volume is constantly set to mute.
Character takes a little while to emerge. If you’ve only had one bottling from a distillery, how can you know whether its flavours are the result of the spirit itself or simply the way it has been influenced by its particular cask or casks? How can you be sure that this one wasn’t an anomaly in terms of where the spirit cuts were made? The more you taste, the more that composite picture emerges, and the clearer it becomes whether a particular bottle is a good example of Glenwhatever, a faulty example of Glenwhatever or an example of Glenwhatever which has been overwhelmed by oak. We learn, perhaps, that Glenwhatever is a spirit which demands or deserves long ageing, that it shows at its best in ex-bourbon, or is muscular enough to stand up to first-fill Oloroso. It becomes clear that Glenwhatever is, indeed, a light, fruity style of spirit (nine out of ten new distilleries seem to describe their spirit as light and fruity), or that it is in fact a burly, meaty, chewy beast. And the more we taste, the more we establish that Glenwhatever is not at all up our street or is the distillery ne plus ultra, about which the heavenly chorus will never cease to sing. (Actual quote from our Mark about Waterford.)
Given that all but two of them are under ten years old, it’s hardly surprising that the individual characters of English distilleries are only tentatively starting to emerge. We’re in a position to make a few guesses – Bimber, for example, appears to be a mouthfilling, teeth-sticking fruit bomb with the arsenal to batter through whatever degree of wood it’s housed in, Cotswolds is all plump sweetness and juiciness and light, whilst what I’ve tasted from White Peak has me ever-more excited about the potential for something visceral and cerebral and growling with just a lick of earthy peat amidst the fatter fruits.
And then we have The Lakes. The wrestle to find its tone of voice has seemed to characterise much of the short history of this Cumbrian distillery. Both in terms of the rhetoric of its communications and the identity of the spirit itself. Having gone in one direction for a couple of years, they brought in Dhavall Gandhi as their head distiller, who didn’t think much of the existing spirit and so completely rewrote the template for its manufacture. With the result that there are two distinct spirit styles maturing in Lakes warehouses, one of which will eventually be phased out entirely, but for the time being is the only style available in Lakes Distillery bottles of single malt.
I have described the more recent spirit style in more depth here, so I won’t re-iterate it entirely again, except to say that it is the result of three distinct distillates from three distinct yeast strains which are blended together prior to casking. Personally, I’m fascinated and, having had the opportunity to hear from Dhavall directly, I have high hopes for it when it finds its way onto shelves.
For the time being though, I’m left scratching my head about their current bottlings – bottlings which represent a tone of voice from which the Lakes Distillery is openly looking to move away. What happens when Dhavall’s spirit is ready? Is it a case of “forget all of the previous – this is the real stuff”? Is it more “behold – evolution! But … um … all that stuff before was worth the cash too.” (Which, now I think on it, raises interesting questions about how Lakes spirit 2.0 will be priced, given the fun that’s been had with various iterations of 1.0.) Or do they simply not mention the total u-turn and hope that the average customer doesn’t notice? Food for thought.
This query dovetails with my other question surrounding Lakes whisky, which is their open use of such terms as “a sherry-led house style” and being “a wood-forward whiskymaker”, which all sounds rather Glenmorangie. I don’t want to get into another “it’s not all about the wood” rant – you’ll find plenty of those in Malt’s existent corpus – but this does rather seem to be a case of trying to make the tail wag the dog. If the wood is the main point of the whisky, then why bother going to all that trouble making such a distinct and characterful spirit? Why bother being a single malt rather than just a heavily-sherried blended malt, or even blended whisky? I suppose that focussing on the wood allows for a more seamless and un-scrutinised hop from one spirit style to t’other when Dhavall’s maturing distillate comes of age, but to my mind, it rather loses sight of the distillery’s USP. Anyone, given the financial resource, can utilise predominantly ex-sherry casks. What will set The Lakes apart from Glendronach, Glenfarclas, Macallan and friends is the spirit they are pouring into them. That’s where we’ll ultimately discover what The Lakes is all about.
Today’s glassful is a riff on the existing tone of voice. (The one that will ultimately be made extinct.) Whereas previous bottlings of Lakes Whisky have, indeed, been mainly decanted from ex-sherry casks, abetted by ex-bourbon and ex-red wine, today’s bottling has come mainly from ex-Colheita Port.
Colheita is a style of Tawny Port which differs from the norm in being marked by vintage rather than by age. Legally they have to have spent at least seven years in oak; in practice, they tend to spend far longer than that. On which basis we can say with absolute confidence that these casks held fortified wine for a lot longer than they held whisky. I must admit that I tend to blow hot and cold on port-matured expressions, but having enjoyed previous Lakes single malts to the tune of 8 and 7 out of ten respectively I’m harbouring high hopes for this one. It’s bottled at a very respectable 52%, and is available from their website for £65, or via Master of Malt for £63.95, which seems to be the rough going rate for anything English and over 46%.
The Lakes The Whiskymaker’s Editions – Colheita – review
Colour: Rose gold.
On the nose: A high-toned, slightly spiky whaff of red, rosé-esque berries and sawn wood. Lots of wood actually – it’s rather spicy. Red cherry, nutmeg. A little syrup and dusky plum skin. It’s not as deep as previous Lakes malts.
In the mouth: Lighter here too and thus, although fairly viscous, struggles to contain the prickle of its heat. Very spiky. The woodiness remains apparent – rather drying and splintery on the finish. More cherries, golden syrup, almond and spice, with just a flutter of maltiness behind them. Unquestionably some nice moments but, by comparison with previous Lakes bottlings, just feels a touch rough-edged and underdone.
The previous Lakes single malts I’ve reviewed did it for me, but I’m afraid this one doesn’t quite. It’s a bit roughty-toughty – all high-tones, edges and elbows. I think it wanted a little while longer in cask; the harmony’s not quite there. Nonetheless, I retain a qualified interest in this distillery. I suspect they’ll certainly end up in England’s upper whisky eschelons. Once they’ve found their voice.
Many thanks to The Lakes for passing on a sample and the photographs. There are also convenient links if you wish to purchase a bottle, one of which is commission-based.