I wish I could say it only feels like yesterday since we reviewed by debut outturn from Single Cask Nation. December 2019 seems like a distant memory. Hazy and punctuated with moments of sunshine compared to the subsequent year that we find ourselves in now.
It was a solid arrival for this American independent bottler that was stretching its wings and reaching out to the UK and European markets. Very difficult markets to crack in the hope of establishing yourself in the maelstrom of choice that consumers have. Pricing was an issue noting that retailers obviously have to take their cut as well. And it’s likely that COVID-19 delayed the keenly awaited follow-up batch of releases we have today.
On paper at least, this outturn offers the presence of well-matured whiskies from Aberfeldy and a grain in Invergordon. We also have the increasingly popular and flippable Imperial making an appearance and the intrigue of an undisclosed bourbon. Although their website gives an almighty hint by stating that it is from Kentucky distillery that experienced a major fire in the 1990s, so answers on a postcard, please. Or just look at the tags at the bottom of this article. A pre-fire bourbon from this distillery that’s spent nearly 13 years in Scotland should be an experience. Overall, it all adds up to an enticing prospect with – I’m pleased to say – the level of interest being assisted by some competitive pricing. Jess from the ‘Nation, kindly sent over the samples for this new release and I said I wouldn’t focus on pricing entirely! So, let’s move on.
To give us some insight into the last year for those at Single Cask Nation and these whiskies, Jess kindly agreed to answer some questions…
MALT: Before we jump into Single Cask Nation, can you introduce yourself and how you got into whisky?
Jess: Hello! I’m really terrible at this so… My name is Jess and I really like whisky! I owe my proper whisky drinking to my uni friends who got me hooked on the stuff while we lived in Aberdeen.
Realistically the fascination with it comes from much earlier as we used to spend all my childhood holidays in the heart of Speyside and had frequent trips to distilleries. This was purely from an educational point as my parents don’t really drink! Well, what else is there to do when it’s raining in Scotland? And you’ve already been to Baxters in Fochabers once that week… My folks were trying to sell/give me away to Glenfiddich from a very early age. Mainly because my Mum liked the uniform the tour guides wore I think! I’ve worked in specialist retailers, run whisky tastings and latterly worked at an online whisky auction for a number of years. Short of having my own distillery, this is pretty much the dream for me. I get to talk all things booze/whisky related and get paid for it. One day I’ll get to add my love of travel back into it too. I was meant to be a lawyer but these days my degrees are gathering dust behind the bottles on my shelf!
MALT: I know that you have a unique insight into the auction world, the ambassador role, running your own tastings and enjoying whisky. What’s your thoughts on the whole secondary market flipping debate? How does an independent try to overcome it or is it impossible?
Jess: I knew you’d ask this. So with my background, I’d like to suggest tentatively that auction houses are sometimes wrongly labelled as the scourge of the whisky world. There are positives there too! There are a lot of cool whiskies I’ve been able to try because of availability through auction that I would never have had access to otherwise. What we have access to in Scotland may not be available elsewhere, they can also allow people elsewhere to try these drams. There are the people who are undoubtedly using whisky to make money through the auctions and sometimes I think people need to remind themselves that it is only whisky, not spare body parts. The hysteria around releases are a little self-fulfilling, people are waiting to be outraged that it sells out. We could talk about this for hours though…
MALT: Ok, putting that aside for a Glasgow pub, back to the current job – what’s your current title and responsibilities?
Jess: My job title is Global Sales Manager. There’s a fair bit more involved in my job but it makes for a messy email signature! The primary part of my role is getting our lovely Single Cask Nation products on shelves and to consumers. So far so good. It also involves the logistics of moving casks between various warehouses, working with our warehouse and bottlers to get things put in glass, ordering dry goods (and I could go on about that all day) getting samples of stock and sending those on to Joshua & Jason in the US. Then, I usually have a coffee and get on with the rest of the day!
MALT: Your bosses, Jason and Joshua, are characters to put it mildly. How would you describe them to our readers and what are they like working for?
Jess: You’re aware that publishing my answers may or may not earn me a P45? Joking aside, I’ve known them for a long time now and been a fan of the whiskies long before my income relied on it. Joshua and Jason are two of the kindest people I’ve met in the industry and that’s an industry which is famous for its heart. They are a great comedy duo and business partners, I love how in tune they are with each other and they balance each other so well. This business was founded on friendship and so was the Nation, it really is like joining a family.
MALT: How has COVID-19 impacted your plans for this year? Have you faced hurdles getting this outturn to market? Do you see the future being virtual and Zoom-based tastings?
Jess: Hoo boy! Well, the initial issue was not having access to stock as warehouses across the country were closed. Then inevitable queues for bottling, samples etc. I have to say our warehouse and bottlers were great and worked their socks off to catch up. So our 2nd UK / EU / ROW release is later than we have hoped for but it could have been worse.
The tastings question is an interesting one – outside of my job, I host a lot of tastings which are now done virtually. It’s been great to see people adapting to this online format. I think we can all agree that it’s not the same as being in the pub together but it certainly beats being alone. I’ve loved being able to “invite” people into my living room and share some drams! I get the feeling we’re going to be online for a while yet.
MALT: I enjoyed your initial outturn, this second release on paper seems more assured – would you say that’s fair? Have you had much input in the selections for this release?
Jess: I think that’s a fair comment (but then again would I expect anything else from Malt?) Perhaps with a few more “recognisable” names than in our initial outturn but I stand by them as well. I really love that Teaninich! Sadly my suggestions for 1950s Mortlach and 1960s Bowmores were shot down but luckily we had some great replacements.
MALT: What did you learn from the debut UK releases? I know I was critical here on pricing, as it’s such a competitive market right now. Although I appreciate retailers have their margins.
Jess: What I’m hoping is that Malt readers understand some of the pricing on the shelf and how we end up there. We are a small independent bottler not a mega-corporation so we work on a smaller scale, which means some of our costs are higher. We aim to price the whiskies fairly for drinking although we recognise that they are not supermarket prices. Look, I’d love to be selling single casks of Lagavulin 21 year old for £100 but someone has to make sure we can pay the bills!
MALT: I’m pleased to see a grain release and especially a bourbon included – one that’s spent half its life in Scotland. Can you tell us anything about such a unique cask history? How important was it to bring some bourbon this time?
Jess: I’m so excited about this Bourbon. Time in Scotland has really had an interesting effect on the liquid and it’s not every day a bourbon gets to 24 years old. Being in Scotland has allowed the liquid to mature more slowly than in its native Kentucky and as a result, I think it’s more comparable to Scotch in some ways. I have no doubt there will be some eyebrows raised for the Scottish maturation but I think there are going to be a lot of fans. We just released the presale in the US this week and sold the whole 1200 allocation in 9 minutes. We are ecstatic!
I’m pleased to say there’s a separate UK / EU / ROW allocation which is going to be available in this release so there is more, fear not! SCN has made a name for the Bourbons, especially the Wild Turkey releases. It’s something I’ve been asked a lot since starting with the company – where is the Bourbon? Well, I’m hoping this is the start, tariff permitting of course. We want to do it well and with the right pricing.
MALT: Yes, more Turkey please! But it’s a crowded market in the UK and on the shelves. How do you stand out from the crowd and what can you do better?
Jess: Well, I think having 9 years of trading in the US has given us a head start; there are lots of people who know us already and have tried previous bottlings. While we’re new-ish to the UK scene, we’re not new to distillers and other whisky businesses. We are one of the rare companies who have released a Glenfarclas which is named and in their livery. Similarly, we were the first independent bottlers of a Kilchoman, with the name used as well. (I’d love to bottle more if you’re reading this Anthony) So I like to think of it as building it on what we’ve already achieved and helping introduce more people to SCN! What can we do better? See my earlier comments about Lagavulin… I like to think we are pretty open to feedback and we grow from this.
MALT: Returning to the outturn, there’s not a single sherry cask, finish or wine cask insight. Jess: Not even a peated whisky! A refreshing change in 2020. Was this a deliberate approach?
No peaty is a bold move I’ll admit, but that’s not to mean we’ll never have a peated whisky again, just that this time we found other casks we wanted to showcase. I had a few people comment that putting a rum in a first release was pretty out there, but I don’t see why we should restrict ourselves to products solely from Scotland. More on that to follow. 😉
MALT: I understand that SCN aren’t big fans of finishing per se and there isn’t a finish here. Would you go down the finishing route that we’re seeing from more independents?
Jess: Not specifically. We always say that we are texture guys – the concern is really how the palate is on the whisky. Is it thin and disappears in a flash? Well, that’s probably not for us then. We aren’t necessarily hung up on the idea of “everything should be old, dark and done in PX sherry casks” because you’re missing a lot of really great liquid. While I think there are some lazy examples of shoving whisky into some really active sherry casks just to give the liquid “something”, don’t get me wrong – there are some phenomenal whiskies that have bene finished (or even rested, see the Watt Whisky co) available on the market and we are not adverse to this at all! Finishing, when balanced, can produce fantastic results.
MALT: Finally, I know what your favourite was from the last outturn. Highlight a couple of these new releases to us to watch out for and which release would you recommend?
Jess: Wow, really down to the pick your favourite child questions huh? So from the new releases, I find it very hard to choose. I love Clynelish in all its forms and this is a young and zesty one. The Bourbon is certainly one to try, but then again who can say no to a 45 year old Invergordon or a 28 year old Aberfeldy? The Glen Elgin is a great every day drinking dram, very laid back and with a bit of salted dark chocolate. Ha cop-out answer!
Single Cask Nation Aberfeldy 1991 – review
Distilled in November 1991, bottled at 28 years of age in October 2020, this resided in a refill bourbon hogshead #7435. 193 bottles were produced at a strength of 42.7%. Expect to pay £210 via The Whisky Exchange, or again £210 from Master of Malt.
Colour: apple juice.
On the nose: a gentle assortment of poached pears, cinnamon and a buttery shortbread. There’s some zest, the classic Aberfeldy honey although muted and oak spice. Adding water brings out an aged sense of dampness, white grapes, meadow fruits and a pronounced sweetness.
In the mouth: cereals, woody in places with some honey and meadow fruits. An enjoyable vanilla creamy vibe. Water reveals plasterboard, white pepper and it becomes a little dry in places.
Single Cask Nation Clynelish 2011 – review
Distilled in May 2011, bottled at 9 years of age in October 2020, this resided in a 2nd fill bourbon hogshead. 244 bottles were produced at a strength of 60.1%. Expect to pay £66.95 from The Whisky Exchange, or £63.95 from Master of Malt.
Colour: faint haze.
On the nose: barley, vanilla and a minty freshness almost peppermint. Subtle wood elements with caramel, some chalky notes that lead into limescale and spent tea leaves. Water unlocks more of that fresh vibe with Kendal Mint Cake and sherbet!
In the mouth: juicy oak, some lime and hint of waxiness, which results in an enjoyable texture. Vanilla, hints of a zesty nature and a mineral aspect. Also minty into the finish. Adding water unlocks oils, more wax and a creamy vanilla.
Single Cask Nation Glen Elgin 2010 – review
Distilled in March 2010, bottled at 10 years of age in October 2020, this resided in a 2nd fill bourbon hogshead. 293 bottles were produced at a strength of 61.3%. This is available via The Whisky Exchange for £64.95.
Colour: almost clear, little colour.
On the nose: a subtle arrival, a mix mash of limes, white chocolate, toffee and delicate vanilla. Adding water reveals more citrus notes with lemon and melon. A very inoffensive and leisurely Elgin so far.
In the mouth: a lovely texture overall it must be said. Wood sap, pine needles and it’s fresh and clean. So, well balanced. Vanilla obviously, some tablet sweetness and Kiwi fruit with meringues also. Adding water unlocks more pine elements and some grapefruit.
Single Cask Nation Imperial 1996 – review
Distilled in April 1996, bottled at 24 years of age in October 2020, this resided in a 2nd fill bourbon barrel. 186 bottles were produced at a strength of 54.65. This is available via The Whisky Exchange for £199.
Colour: mellow gold.
On the nose: orange zest, delicate green apples and an oily residue. Caramel, an aged vanilla, worn shammy and a tin aspect. Barley, honey and some citrus lingers beyond the initial zest. A dash of water unlocks boiled sweets and memories of those rhubarb and custard hard boiled sweeties.
In the mouth: not what I was expecting initially, the Speyside fruit assortment is here but seems withered. The caramel and vanilla are present alongside a chalky nature and a touch of citrus. Adding water really brings this whisky out of its slumber. Now there’s an old school vibe with the fruit and wood spice; lovely balance and poise to the flavours that mingle well. Spearmint? Also some fresh black tea leaves and peppercorn showcase the benefits of patience and water.
Single Cask Nation Invergordon 1974 – review
Distilled in March 1974, bottled at 45 years of age in November 2019, this resided in a 1st fill bourbon barrel. 194 bottles were produced at a strength of 46.9%. This grain will cost £175 from The Whisky Exchange.
Colour: apricot stone.
On the nose: that familiar scent of aged grain. A tinge of alcohol combined with decades of wood. Some caramel wafers, toast and withered vanilla. Rubbed brass, marshmallows and a baked New York Cheesecake. It’s all very subtle and caressing, like a careless whisper. A hint of rosewater, sliced apples, toffee with wood polish and with time some blackberries. I didn’t feel water was that beneficial here.
In the mouth: again very gentle, wood driven with black pepper and some char. Also polish, Highland toffee and some alcohol vibrancy, but this is loungeful grain and happy to be that way.
Single Cask Nation Undisclosed Bourbon 1994 – review
Distilled in Kentucky during October 1994, bottled at 24 years of age in September 2020, this spent 12 years in America and almost 13 years in Scotland. 300 bottles were produced at a strength of 47.4%. This mysterious bourbon will set you back a reasonable £235 via The Whisky Exchange.
Colour: worn conker.
On the nose: oh, now that’s something with the earthy wood notes battling against the sweetness. A real resinous feel to this. It is chunky and has a promising density. Fudge, rummy notes, freshly baked cinnamon rolls and cinder toffee. Of course, there’s vanilla, but it takes a backseat. Honeycomb, a gentle sprinkling of salt, cranberries and blackcurrant.
In the mouth: now this is far more relaxed than I had anticipated. A pleasing chewy texture underlines that density promise. Treacle, chocolate digestive and a lumberyard of wood. Toasted pine nuts, ginger snaps and Black Jacks – that’s an aniseed sweet if you haven’t had the honour. Pretty refined despite that wood thrust, it kinda holds on and balances out in the end.
On paper you might not think this is a varied selection, lacking sherry or peat, but you’d be wrong. Such an assortment allows you to appreciate the differences in distilleries, the casks and the effect of time itself. Anyway, that said we should offer some thoughts…
I had high expectations of the Aberfeldy, having visited the distillery and knowing what it can offer in a more natural presentation. It can be a lovely thing when it isn’t doused in artificial colouring and chill-filtered. Sadly, I sense there’s a little bit of this 28 year old going too far in the cask. That shine and sparkle I was expecting, has been sanded down by the wood. Still a solid drop, but I’d have to recommend other releases in this outturn first.
The Clynelish and Glen Elgin are the youthful gunslingers of this outturn. Full, of youthful vitality and strength. Offering more of a sense of the spirit side as opposed to the wood. Especially as they are both 2nd fill. Now, I don’t have anything against 2nd or 3rd fill casks. After all, you put in good quality distillate and the outcome will still be worthwhile. I know Mark will call such casks knackered and talk about premium wood etc. But that’s just nonsense with a 3rd fill 1981 Glenugie underlining my point nicely.
And I believe that’s what’s happened with both of these whiskies. In essence, the wood hasn’t really had a chance to jump into proceedings and delay the journey. Neither is rich or hugely detailed, yet the core experience is satisfying and boosted by the texture of both whiskies.
Price-wise the Imperial is very competitively priced. We’re seeing whiskies from this distillery now appearing in the £200¹, nearly £300 price bracket. Initially, I was a little disappointed by the whisky with a solid nose but the palate wasn’t really doing much for me. An austere Imperial. However, add a drop of water and enjoy the change as it all comes together in a captivating form.
This leaves us with the elder statesman in the form of the Invergordon and that bourbon. Mixed thoughts about the Invergordon in all honesty. I’m a fan of grain and yet this isn’t the most dynamic or flavoursome exponent. On the other hand, this is 1974 and 45 year old and you’re able to purchase this for a reasonable price. To some, that’s the key attraction here and I cannot dispute that mesmerising quality of a geriatric age statement.
The bourbon has a great nose. One you can keep on dipping into and finding new nuggets. The palate keeps threatening to be dominated by the wood and its quite a tussle but prime time viewing. With this drama unfolding and some balance being maintained. I enjoyed it greatly, so much so, I forgot to add water. Clearly, bourbon matured in Scotland takes on another dimension.
Photographs kindly provided by Single Cask Nation, as were the samples.
¹ The original RRP was circa £130, The Whisky Exchange charged £199 for this while Master of Malt came in at £131.95. Both sold out, but a dramatic difference in price set by the retailers themselves.
These releases will be available at a variety of retailers, and there are some commission links within this article to support Malt.