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A Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar Selection

2020 hasn’t finished with us yet it seems. The tidal wave of disruption, losses and more besides will linger for generations and there is a threat of further measures and lockdown on the horizon. Yet some businesses have adapted and thought outside of the box to survive.

The Dornoch Castle Hotel was such an example that took to crowdfunding to provide essential revenue and support. I supported the venture and was rewarded with a voucher to spend at a later date on a variety of hotel options. As much as I’d like to have a few nights in Dornoch it just hasn’t been possible this year. Passing through in September, it was fantastic to see the hotel up and running and familiar faces. A community had rallied and supported, which I’m sure is reflected across the country, where many have offered assistance to local businesses and institutions they used to frequent.

In reality, I was only going to spend my voucher at the bar and what a selection it offers. You can travel through time in this whisky bar and explore whiskies from across the world and different eras. Bottles opened for your whisky journey that you rarely see in the flesh, never mind actually with the seal broken. The domain of unicorns, whisky or whatever you want to call it, reside here in the flesh and are yours for a reasonable price.

So, how do you navigate an Aladdin’s cave of whisky? You turn to those who oversee the whiskies and acquire new treasures. Chief of bar research is Phil and I set him the task of picking out 5 whiskies to take home to explore further. With the exception of the divisive Glen Garioch, which I was given a taste of in advance (you’ll see why below) for prior approval, the rest were unknown commodities with some having a reputation that proceeded them.

The whiskies were experienced over a period of 10 days, providing ample time to reflect on the liquid journey.

Gordon and MacPhail Private Collection Glen Grant 1953 -review

Distilled on 16th April 1953, bottled during August 2001. Casks 1860 and 1864 were combined and bottled at 45% strength.

Colour: soot.

On the nose: blackcurrant fruit pastilles, embers, Szechuan pepper, black shoe polish and liquorice. Coal dust, dried fruit, cinnamon, jammy as with treacle and an alcohlic coffee.

In the mouth: bark, more coal, sooty, chocolate and cracked pepper. Soya sauce, scorched beef, figs, latte and extremely easy drinking! Boot polish, brambles and a trace of vanilla.

Score: 8/10

Gordon & MacPhail Talisker 1957 – review

An original Cask natural high strength release. Bottled at 53.3% strength and this was an Italian export edition and bottled at 32 years of age.

Colour: honeycomb.

On the nose: an intoxicating mix which is so pungent and fresh even today. Linseed oil, spent candle wax, honey, sea salt and caramel. A shammy, brown sugar, driftwood and beach shells. Pear drops, beeswax? There’s honeysuckle, liquorice and a lingering smoke. Raspberry tea, engine oil residue and toasted oats, brazil nuts and a handful of tea leaves. Sooty as well, so complex and beguiling with fresh pinewood and leather. It can take water and retain some power, unlocking more coastal vibes and copper.

In the mouth: just as complex on the palate. A tea merchant’s chest, caramels, nuttiness and a delicate smoke. Resinous, more-ish and that soot again. Green peppercorns, walnuts, liquorice and Galaxy chocolate. Jacob’s crackers, toffee and vanilla pod. With water things are more rounded, clay, astringent, bitter oak, orange rind and more peppercorns. Beach smoke and tar on the finish.

Score: 10/10

Moon Import In The Pink Glen Garioch 1966 – review

Bottled at 46% strength, this is was bottled in 2000 with an outturn of 192 bottles.

Colour: white gold.

On the nose: fruity and backed up by a layer of peat. Sappy, apple peel, white pepper, pear drops and matchsticks. Some brown sugar, pine needles and towards the end some Highland heather mixed in with a touch of soap. Ok, not too bad, let’s try…

In the mouth: the best description is peated soap! It isn’t totally overwhelming unlike some drams I’ve had, but it certainly shakes the palate. Stepping through this characteristic is difficult. There are some fruit notes towards the end and chalkiness but the real details have been scrubbed clean. A shame.

Score: 7/10

Old & Rare Lochnagar 1973 – review

Bottled in 2003 at 57.9% strength, this is one of 239 bottles.

Colour: tablet.

On the nose: a pleasing fruit salad bowl featuring apples and lychees, worn vanilla and toffee. Herbaceous, bashed lemon, cask spicing and oil in parts. Plasterboard, orange pips, camphor and a lovely layered experience. A fine green tea with earthiness and rapeseed oil round off the journey.

In the mouth: very different to the nose and note an elder statesman. In fact, it is quite aggressive and boisterous in parts. Still, plenty of life left in this oldie. Sooty, more toffee, dried orange, dark chocolate with raisins and plenty of cask char. A herbaceous finish with fennel and tarragon persisting.

Score: 8/10

The Dragon 1973 – review

This Highland Park, a Robertson’s of Kirkwall bottling and was bottled in April 1992 at 58.9% strength.

Colour: toffee.

On the nose: almost perfect. Joyous peat, fruits and brown sugar in total harmony. Camphor, maple syrup, chocolate nuts, orange liqueur, fudge and waxed wood. Overripe apples, wild brambles, rummy raisins and a sense of raw power.

In the mouth: huge, bold, powerful and yet cohesive. Rusty, memories of old iron bars red with rust. Jammy, earthy, cask char, brown sugar and a rich toffee. Salty in parts. Chewy texture. Sooty, crispy bacon and a hint of soap towards the end, if you listen hard enough.

Score: 9/10

Conclusions

A real treat and I’ve always said to judge the current, then you need to consider the past. Some of these whiskies are beyond the budget of many, despite the Dornoch prices being fair compared to some establishments I’ve frequented. Even so, there are whiskies on offer for under £10 and £20 that will take you on a journey and that’s what whisky is all about.

There are plenty of aged Glen Grants out there on the market. This range from Gordon & MacPhail showcases a strong sherry influence and this is a very good dram but not in the class of that 1973 Old Pulteney, which was just exceptional. You can see and appreciate why Gordon & MacPhail work with Glen Grant as it ages wonderfully well within sherry.

Moving on, the Talisker is utterly compelling and a real moment whisky. The complexity, elegance and harmony are akin to being struck down by lighting; a eureka moment if you will. An exceptional whisky. One that showcases what we’ve left behind in the modern era and a dram that begs the question can we roll things back, please?

I always have time for Glen Garioch, more so pre-closure before its character was forced into a more modern straightjacket. This is a flawed exponent but still has retains traces of what makes the distillery a former classic with the nose saving the day. And then the Lochnagar, a distillery you don’t see much of and you wonder why after trying this whisky. I think it could have resided in the cask for longer, but you have a punchy 30 year old with a chip on its shoulder to experience.

That dragon, eh? The stuff of legends and such a simple yet effective label. The current owners of Highland Park would do well to consider what their distillery is capable of. We’ve seen it in flashes from single casks. If they could retrace and unlock the potential once again, then, they could wrap the bottles up in a brown paper bag for all I care. Almost a 10 in my book, just falling short at the final hurdle, but captivating nevertheless. A stunning nose.

Overall, a very strong selection from Phil, even with the blip of the Garioch being highlighted upfront. Experiences such as these are worth saving up for if you can, visiting in person, or even trying many of the bars who are selling drams online during these COVID times. We all deserve a wee treat for making it through this year.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Stuart says:

    Great write up Jason!
    I’ve been wanting to get to Dornoch Castle ever since my girlfriend’s dad had visited years ago and after seeing your abundance of joyous experiences there it is making me crave it even more.
    Hopefully one day soon! Cheers.

    1. Avatar
      James says:

      If you’re in Dornoch it’s well worth a trip to Portmahomack to eat at the Oystercatcher. The food is good and they have an extensive collection of whisky at very reasonable prices. The most interesting of which are lots of Gordon & Macphail bottles from the 90’s which are generally £5-10 a measure.

  2. Avatar
    Steve Hayes says:

    Fascinating article ………….. do you think that, notwithstanding conventional wisdom, time in the bottle, and perhaps time in the opened bottle, has had an impact on these whiskies?

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Steve

      I do think there is something to ageing in the bottle, there has to be. As for the opening, the Dornoch bar regulates the fill levels and fills with gas to prevent any issues. Once the level has reduced too much to be effective, the remaining whisky is split into samples to purchase. And an opened bottle can be a positive if given time to let the whisky open up.

      Cheers, Jason.

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