Who is the best bottler currently operating in Scotland? Delivering quality and value on a regular basis?
Many of my whisky circle would promptly reply with Càrn Mòr and in particular their Strictly Limited range. Personally, I do enjoy Cadenhead’s but they’ve become more variable and harder to find in some cases. The WhiskyBroker would be another suggestion from many and one that offers tremendous value, yet often at the expense of consistent quality. Others might throw names into the ring such as North Star Spirits, although they are doing more ‘premium’ releases in 2020, and Chorlton Whisky. However, despite all their collective charms and others that we may have overlooked, there is no denying the ascendency of Càrn Mòr.
Normally, we’d include some convenient links to enable you to purchase a bottled and in doing so, support Malt. These releases are sold out at our usual link-destinations. However, I’m more than happy to highlight some other retailers who do stock these and might have availability if you wish to purchase. We should, after all, support local whenever we can and many independents would appreciate your custom right now. I’ve put some possible destinations below if you fancy purchasing a bottle – these are commission free and I am happy to add others to the list.
To give us some insight into all things Càrn Mòr related and 2020, Sales Director, Niel, kindly took the time out to answer a few questions…
MALT: When I met James (also of Càrn Mòr), at the Fife Whisky Festival back in March, there was a sense of COVID-19 incoming with the appearance of hand sanitisers. But nothing could have prepared us for the remainder of the year. How has it been for the Càrn Mòr team dealing with all of the COVID ill-effects?
Niel: Well, I think it’s safe to say we have all had to adapt to the circumstances. We closed our distillery and bottling facility for a while at the beginning of the pandemic and then realised that with certain safety measures in place, we could manage our bottling facility with reduced staff. There’s plenty of space and we really only need 2 people to run the line, so we were able to release a new range of Càrn Mòr whisky in the middle of it all – safely!
Sadly, like for many others in our industry, our UK business has been severely affected due to the lack of shows and fairs, and the brutal lack of tourists that come to our cities and whisky-producing regions to support our industry.
MALT: I don’t think we can talk about the relaunched range without touching upon the company changes this year. Can you talk us through these and what plans you have for the brand?
Niel: The main change happened towards the end of last year when the Morrison Family became sole owners of Morrison and Mackay (at the time the Morrison family were already majority shareholders of the business). The ambition was to bring our all our whisky interest under one roof to essentially become a fully integrated Scotch Whisky business. We now have the barley farm, our distillery (Aberargie), warehousing and inventory, bottling facility and branded business all under the same ownership and management. After a few months of design and creative work we officially launched Morrison Scotch Whisky Distillers in October 2020 with the first release of Càrn Mòr under the new corporate identity.
Our plans are to continue bottling under the Càrn Mòr brand name with Strictly Limited and Celebration of the Cask, in our new bespoke bottle and updated packaging.
MALT: It feels like you’ve had more rebrands than the Scotch Malt Whisky Society! But at least the new look revealed last month is prompted by the change in ownership. Can you talk us through this refresh?
Niel: We did a refresh in September of 2019, which was essentially a sharper-looking label – exactly the same information as previous and a gift box, which were missing before. It served a purpose as a “quick fix solution” that in hindsight did us proud for 12 months. This gave us time to work on a more dramatic “rebrand” under the new corporate identity. The first major change was the development of our bespoke bottle. A tall, elegant glass with strong shoulders and weighty base that carries the family name. A bottle that will stand proud on shelf. At the bottom of the bottle, we have our 3 brand values of Integrity, Patience and Intuition.
We wanted the label to reflect that our range is as close to drinking whisky from the cask as you can get, taking the cask from the warehouse to the bottle with very little, if any interference. This is especially accurate for Celebration of the Cask since they are all single casks – at cask strength.
So, the label has 2 elements:
The first carries the Càrn Mòr brand name in a stencil typography to mirror the way in which we mark our casks in the warehouse.
The bottom label carries all the information of the actual bottling and represents the sample bottle label that we will receive from the warehouse. It indicates information such as distillery name, distillation dates, age, strength and cask type.
MALT: I believe you used Smithy Graphics for your last brand visuals, which I felt was clean and got across all the relevant information. The relaunch feels like an evolution of this with a touch of style included? Did you use the same design company?
Niel: That was the exact brief to Smithy Graphics and they delivered a beautiful, functional label and gift box.
We knew that the information on the label was key and we wanted to keep all the information on there, to be as transparent as we can be. However, this was a bigger job than just a new label, so we worked with another superstar team at Thirst who have done some great work within the industry and were recently awarded World Brand Design Awards – Agency of the Year.
MALT: Strictly Limited has a growing reputation amongst enthusiasts for a marriage of value and quality. You also offer a variety of distilleries and often fully matured releases rather than finishes – have you purposely avoided the need to finish?
Niel: We do have a very loyal following of enthusiast that trust us to bottle great whisky at a fair price. Funny you should say that… our November release includes 3 whiskies that were finished in a PX, Sauternes and STR cask, respectively. The idea of “finishing” takes time, planning and investment and if done well can be very appealing. The key for me is that you start off with good liquid…. and use the finishing cask to enhance the flavour and complexity. Watch this space in 2021.
MALT: Did the change in ownership affect your inventory at all? How many casks roughly do you have to pick from?
Niel: It certainly increased our access and availability of stock as everything is now under one roof. Our inventory has always been under the ownership of the Morrisons and we continue to invest in our stocks for the future.
To answer the question about number of casks… the best way for me to put it is: We have enough casks that we don’t have to bottle something that we do not feel 100% comfortable with. Which, in this industry is a luxury….
MALT: Are you looking to increase the frequency of the Strictly Limited releases and expanding to international markets? I know my American friends would love to see some over there.
Niel: It’s a balancing act of managing our inventory vs demand. Although we are increasing the number of bottles we release each year, we do need to carefully plan the allocations of each market. Hopefully, your friends, and our friends in America won’t have to wait much longer…
MALT: Can you talk us through how you put together an out-turn, who decides what casks go into the release?
Niel: It really is driven by the liquid, but in an ideal world, you’d like to have a nice variety in each release. Different distilleries from various regions, different cask types, peated vs non-peated – you get the picture. So, that’s what we aim for, but essentially it comes back to selecting great liquid that is interesting and represents something special. Each expression has a purpose, there is a reason why each whisky gets bottled. It might be personal to me; it might be because it shows something unique in terms of flavour or it’s a special cask type… sometimes it’s how 2 or 3 casks come together that is inspiring and you realise that they work better together than as individuals – more harmonious, greater balance and complexity.
This is by far the most exciting and at the same time most challenging part of my job. I am assisted by our production manager— Graeme Mackeddie—when it comes down to the final decision and he will essentially do all the vatting required for Strictly Limited.
MALT: I noticed that these new releases have higher outturns. Is this a deliberate move to ensure retailers have stock and can meet demand?
Niel: It is a combination of a growing number of export markets and increase in demand from local retailers and consumers. For Strictly Limited we have the flexibility to use multiple casks in each bottling and have over time managed to increase certain releases to meet demand and ensure we can supply retailers with sufficient stock. But the quality of the liquid remains the deciding factor! If we don’t have the stock or the right number of casks, we won’t bottle it and we very often end up with less bottles than is required.
MALT: Some of your previous Strictly Limited releases have turned up at auction, which seems a sad reflection on where we are nowadays for a £50 bottle of whisky. Is this a problem you’re aware of and do you take note of secondary market prices?
Niel: We are aware of this and as you said… very sad to be honest. I’d like to think that people buy our whisky because its great quality liquid for the price and therefore to open and enjoy. I try not to get too involved as it is not within my control. But personally, I don’t see the point.
MALT: Moving on if we can, you also have the Celebration of the Cask range. I know when we talked at the festival, there was a perceived gap in the line-up, around the late teenage whiskies that didn’t necessarily fit into the Strictly Limited or Celebration of the Cask ranges. Is this something you’re hoping to tackle with the rebranding?
Niel: Again, its largely driven by inventory. Stock from the early 2000s to 2006 is a rare commodity, so there is that gap between mid – to late 90’s stock and 2006. However, we do have a Bunnahabhain 2005 in our November release that will fill that gap perfectly. So yes, maybe we do have some opportunities to fill that gap.
MALT: You also have the exclusive Family Reserve range, which are casks owned by Brian and Jamie Morrison and come from their Private Collection. Could you shed a little light on what to expect here in the coming months and the pricing?
Niel: Family Reserve is a new expression under the Càrn Mòr Brand and will only be released in 2021 for the first time. No details as the first release just yet, but each cask will have a significant connection to the Morrison Family and their involvement in the industry for the past 5 generations.
MALT: Finally, no one is really talking about Aberargie distillery as of yet, which began production in October 2017. Do you have any plans for the whisky as it’s just turned 3 years old, or we will have to wait a while longer? How is the whisky coming along?
Niel:We literally turned 3 years last week, so we now officially have Whisky which is very exciting. We will release Aberargie as a Single Malt Scotch Whisky when the liquid is ready… I know you have heard this before. Patience is one of our key values and essential in our craft, so we will be patient. For now, we will let the spirit and the wood do their thing and when they are ready, we will be ready too.
Also, we are not selling casks, we are not launching a gin brand and we are not selling new make spirit just in case you were asking.
On a serious note, we are very happy with the spirit that is coming off the stills. As you know we are a farm to bottle distillery and the team are now very comfortable with the delicate balance of the use of our ingredients, fermentation times and running of the stills. They are very happy with all the trials of the first year and can now focus on putting good quality, consistent spirit into high-quality wood for the future.
My thanks to Niel for his time and we’ll have a proper chat next year! Now, for the whiskies…
Càrn Mòr Longmorn 2009 – review
Bottled at 11 years of age from 1st Fill Bourbon Barrels, this resulted in an outturn of 830 bottles, bottled at 47.5% strength
Colour: white gold.
On the nose: fresh vanilla, an engaging and light presence. Plenty of apple notes and candy floss with sherbet and a bit of fizz and pop to proceedings. A lemon sponge cake, green olives, mint chocolate leaf and some melon. I didn’t feel this one needed any water.
In the mouth: a resinous texture that is satisfying. More green apples, spent tea leaves, vanilla and a twist of lime. White chocolate underlines the sweet aspect and vanilla with fennel, orange and grapefruit rounding off a classic Speyside experience.
Càrn Mòr Mannochmore 2007 – review
Bottled at 13 years of age from PX Sherry Hogsheads, this resulted in an outturn of 1551 bottles, bottled at 47.5% strength
On the nose: lots of toffee and redberries with some strawberries bursting through. Brown sugar, spicy oak, honey, tea leaves and an enjoyable jammy quality to all those fruits.
In the mouth: now the cask comes through, granting this whisky presence and character in a big way – but not overriding the experience. Plenty of chocolate, cherrywood notes and bitter orange offering some balance. There’s also cinnamon, charcoal and oak spices with some pepper. Cinnamon, figs and prunes as well. I’m also getting blackberries, raisins and some roasted coffee towards the finish.
Càrn Mòr Williamson 2010 – review
Bottled at 10 years of age from Oloroso Sherry Hogsheads, this resulted in an outturn of 1139 bottles, bottled at 47.5% strength
Colour: golden sunset – actually a good colour for a young Islay.
On the nose: a sweet peat that isn’t bogged down in decaying matter. Instead, it is light and allows a fruity aspect to come through. There are the coastal elements as well w and a with salt and driftwood nicely balance. Sooty as well combined with some plain flour and brief TCP note that underlines this is Laphroaig. Toasted pine nuts, saline, hemp and unscrubbed white button mushrooms. No need for water at this strength.
In the mouth: oily, salty and peaty with just the right amount of strength behind it. Again, this is a coastal setting with seaweed, old rope and white pepper. Some saline, Lapsang souchong, driftwood, dying embers, rusty in parts and some brine. The finish is all about the salty peat with some pine needles.
You get exactly what you’d hope for from a Longmorn at this age and arguably a little more besides with the texture. One of those whiskies you can reach for and enjoy without annihilating your bank balance or paying for superficial marketing or stories. Lovely to see a Longmorn in its natural habitat as well.
The Mannochmore is a real crowd pleaser and the sort of whisky that attracts attention to this bottler. We’ve seen in previous outturns people chasing down a Glenlossie, Mortlach etc. and this one is hopefully a little easier due to the outturn. It doesn’t detract from the experience whatsoever. We’re starting to see some quality from this distillery and this vintage being showcased by the independents. I’ve had some frightfully disappointing SMWS bottlings from this distillery in recent times and these can turn you off from trying again. However, this bottling is well worth seeking out with the perfect representation of value versus experience.
Rounding off our trio is the Williamson, or Laphroaig as its more commonly known. Now, don’t immediately assume this is like the Laphroaig whiskies in your supermarket that lack style and presence. They are the same distillery, but the flavours and aromas haven’t been washed away by overly aggressive processing and watering down the whisky. Whiskies like these remind us of the continuing mystery around the distillery; why it fails time and time again to deliver a good core range. There is a disconnect. Maybe actually using the Williamson name is more beneficial for independents? Is it arguably a mark of quality compared to ‘Laphroaig’? A damning verdict indeed, but entirely justifiable and a poignant end to this recent trio.
In summary, I cannot argue with my whisky friends and their answers. The Strictly Limited range is bang on form and showcasing what can be done with effort and skill.
Lead image provided by Tyndrum Whisky, where you can purchase some of these releases. Other images kindly provided by Thirst, or are my own.