Where did 2020 go? Right now, I’m sitting with the latest cask split finish from new bottler, Na Bràithrean, and fighting off that sense of déjà vu.
See, it was only earlier this year that I was in the same position with their debut Caol Ila Wee Brother and then later on with the Big Brother variant. I turned the tables and created a strong-willed bear like sister and mixed the two whiskies in traditional Marky Malt style. Since then, we’ve been locked up, locked down, fed on a diet of false information and broken promises from our leaders, before heading into the winter months back a square one. So, yes, forgive me if I’m a little dazed, but also excited to see how they’ve decided to approach that difficult second release syndrome.
Trying to break that déjà vu sensation for us all, I’m not going to talk about the difficult sequel, finishing or even Benrinnes – a distillery that offers so much fertile ground when it comes to its distilling history and fondness of residing in a sherry cask. No siree. Looking ahead to the 2021 Malt, we’d like to bring you more and more besides. This includes sitting down with bottlers, distillers, ex-distillery workers etc. whenever possible. So, with this on my mind, I reached out the brothers behind the label for a chat and also asked our Phil to give us his thoughts on these latest releases alongside my own. That should hopefully shift the sensation for as long as it takes to read this article and finish that cuppa.
MALT: Thanks for agreeing to some questions, so the obvious place to start is at the beginning. How did you get into whisky and then what prompted that leap into doing your own releases?
Not a problem it’s great to share our story with you.
BRENDAN: For me my love for whisky started on a trip around Scotland I went on after I graduated from University. One of our stops was Islay and we arranged a taxi tour to try to get to as many distilleries as possible in one day. Our first stop was Bruichladdich at 10 am and was fascinated by the tour and history of the distillery. We had a tasting afterwards where we tried some brilliant drams one of which being Bruichladdich Bere Barely, this being the dram where the ‘penny dropped’. I loved the flavours and could actually taste the complexity of whisky for the first time. This was subsequently followed up by an Octomore which was also brilliant but not your typical breakfast dram.
ANDY: My journey into whisky started in my early 20’s. I worked in the hospitality industry for a while behind a small restaurant bar in my hometown of Kilmarnock. Up to then I didn’t know much about it or like it to be honest and thought of it wrongly as an old man’s drink. Working behind a bar, pouring, tasting and talking to customers about all the different blends and single malts we had really started to develop my taste and appreciation for it. I began to pick up the different flavours and complexities of each and would learn about the bottles we had in so I could recommend certain ones to customers, explain the tasting notes and tell them facts about each bottle and distillery. My love for it really started to take off a couple of years after when Brendan and I attended a few tastings together. The first one I remember being at The Good Spirits Co. in Glasgow and we tried some unbelievable whiskies including Balblair 18 and Kilchoman STR cask. Trying those drams along with others that day is what got me hooked.
We both met and studied engineering together at The University of Strathclyde and became friends here. Since then both of us have really enjoyed heading to whisky festivals and tastings where we grew fonder of our national drink. We decided that we wanted to take a stab at getting ourselves into an industry that we loved. This idea grew stronger when we purchased an octave collection from A.D Rattray that included a set of samples all originating from a single cask and that had been finished in a number of different octaves. We loved the way that each dram was unique but all of them were related and similar in ways. We found the effect that the different casks had on the colour, smell and taste of the whisky fascinating and knew that we wanted to explore this more. This led us to the idea of Na Bràithrean.
MALT: Was the brother idea settled upon fairly on or did you go through various incarnations?
BRENDAN: Yes, this idea was settled pretty early on. We knew that there were lots of whisky producers out there including many independent bottlers. We had to give our customers something that other brands didn’t. Why should someone buy a 12 year old Caol Ila from us over Diageo or another independent bottler? This is why we focus on cask influence and in particular finishing, it allows our customers to experience what the wood can do to a whisky. The term brothers came from sister casks, which is a term we had heard describing two casks that were numbered one after each other e.g. cask 526 and cask 527 are sister casks. We liked the term and it also worked with the idea that the bottles are related.
MALT: What’s the most challenging aspect of starting your own independent bottling business?
BRENDAN: There are lots of small hurdles but the biggest for us is definitely finding the time. We both work full time and have had to put in the extra hours after work and at the weekends.
MALT: Well, I can certainly appreciate the lack of time! If you could change one thing about the whole process what would it be?
BRENDAN: Nothing so far, we’ve had a great time learning and meeting great people.
MALT: I do appreciate the map labels, it’s a simple yet great image.
BRENDAN: The map and the whole label was designed by our friends and we love it. We found that most independent bottlers labels all look very similar and from a distance, you can’t tell where the spirit has been distilled. Again, we wanted to be different and showcase the distillery as much as we did our brand and at the same time give the drinker an appreciation of the wood we have used to shape the spirit.
MALT: On that label, you’ve managed to bottle casks where you’re able to state the distillery. Are you seeing fewer casks via brokers where you’re able to use the name? Would you just overcome the issue with a less specific map?
BRENDAN: So far we see a lot that we can use the distillery name. Being new to the industry its important our customers have an idea of what they are purchasing till we prove that we will only bottle good whisky. We have discussed this and to be honest, we’re not too sure where the rules lie with what hints we can giveaway about the distillery and if a concept map is too obvious.
MALT: Moving on to the bread and butter of bottling – how difficult have you found sourcing the initial casks? Have the finishing casks been difficult to locate and do you expect to reuse these casks again? I know from speaking with Anatoliy from Scyfion (a Ukrainian bottler), finding good wine casks is a huge effort.
BRENDAN: Finding casks has not been too difficult as we have a good network of people around us, but we do see casks at inflated prices. Aside from that, as I know you are aware, we often purchase blind, which is where having very reliable suppliers really helps. The cask we use for finishing can be a bit of luck, we often rely on what others are ordering into cooperages and piggyback off them. So far we have been very fortunate and got exactly what we wanted, but it definitely helps to be flexible.
MALT: Picking up on that point, I’m sure our readers would be interested to know are prices increasing rapidly? Are these casks going unsold or abroad?
BRENDAN: We’ve only seen cask lists for about a year now so don’t have too much of a timeline to compare. From what we hear prices are going up but its mostly due to how many brokers the cask in sold through. If you purchase a cask that is brokered through 3 brokers all adding on 10% the princes of casks really start to build up. Not sure about casks being unsold or going abroad because we only see casks you buy.
MALT: Buying blind seems a potential pitfall nowadays and a backwards process. Are improvements needed to the cask buying process and is this very much currently ‘buyer beware’ overall? At least I suppose, you’re buying a case to mainly finish, so you have some possible opportunities.
BRENDAN: Yeah, it definitely is but its the reality of the industry and there’s a very low chance we could change it. We do our best to reduce the risk by having very few suppliers and working closely with the ones we trust. Yes, finishing does make things a bit easier for us but we still think it’s important to start with a good mother cask. So far we’ve had no issues.
MALT: The Caol Ila was a safe bet to open up with, now you’ve picked out Benrinnes for your second release – are you fans of the distillery or was it too good an opportunity to put down? I know from experience, Benrinnes goes well with sherry and has played host to some of the wackiest sherry casks I’ve tried over the years.
BRENDAN: Caol Ila was definitely a strong start and one of the main reasons for choosing it. Benrinnes wasn’t one we planned on doing, but one of our suppliers had these brilliant sherry octaves from Fernando de Castilla and we jumped on them. We’re really glad we did because they have turned out brilliant and will be the perfect dram for the run-up to the festive season.
MALT: What was the duration of the finish on the Benrinnes? So far, you’ve done sherry finishes, are you thinking about other types of casks going forward? Maybe trying to find other types of sherry casks?
BRENDAN: The finish for these two is around the 6 months mark, we drew a sample about a month before bottling and we were certain 6 months was going to be the right amount of time. Yes, we are, our next bottling does not have any sherry involved and we can also tell you we are experimenting with a number of different finishes next year. We are currently maturing spirit in a sherry quarter cask but it’s not a new cask… We’ll leave you guessing!
MALT: Do you expect your finishes to remain in short duration i.e. under 2 years or are you looking to expand that timeframe given the opportunity?
BRENDAN: At the moment we will keep them short, the longest we have planned is around a year. The reason being we think is it’s important from now on to release the brothers together so our customers can try them side by side, compare and contrast. That’s not to say that we won’t in the future when we are better established and can afford to store bottles for longer. Bottles take up much more space than cask so can be expensive to store for long periods of time.
MALT: So, your whisky is sitting in these finishing casks. How often do you monitor the contents and would you always bottle both at the same time?
BRENDAN: It depends entirely on the cask. We have a rough idea of when we want to bottle and draw a sample which is roughly about a month prior to then just to see how things are going. However, we have a cask right now that can be quite volatile so we’re keeping a real close eye on it and drawing samples every couple of weeks. Not always, for this bottling we have because we want to display how the spirit can change due to a difference in sherry wood. Whereas with our Caol Ila bottling we wanted to show how the PX cask and time can influence the flavour hence why we re-racked into the PX quarter cask and bottled what was in the mother cask.
MALT: While splitting a cask for finishes gives enthusiasts an opportunity to compare and contrast which is welcome. From a business point of view, it does limit the outturns that you can offer for sale. Does this mean you’re concentrating on the UK market for now and like all small independents taking things slowly?
BRENDAN: Yes, this model is something that just loses its shine on a mass scale. If we start vatting we begin to add more variables and then lose the tractability of the bothers characteristics. Mass-produced whisky can be a vatting of multiple sherry and bourbon casks to create the perfect flavour profile the blender is after. We’re not aiming to get a certain flavour profile, we’re being experimental. Of course, we put thought into it and choose the wood wisely but we don’t aim for an end result. We think that’s one of the beauties of single cask whiskies, each is unique.
Yes at the moment we are concentrating on the UK and EU but we will look further afield in the future. We plan to have seasonal releases for our brothers going forward and we don’t really want to do much more than that. You never know though, we may bring out a new product!
MALT: Pricing is key nowadays. Some don’t have much disposable income and then, of course, we all need to be limiting what we drink. Have you thought about smaller bottle sizes?
BRENDAN: We make sure our bottles are a fair price, we don’t like that many people who love whisky are compromising because of inflated prices. We have thought about smaller bottles and more specifically a set of smaller bottles you purchase together. We did consider starting with a 50cl bottle but we decided to stick with the 70cl. Our bottlings showcase the influence of the cask and we want drinkers to compare and contrast but that’s not all we wanted to create. We also want two bottles of whisky that stand alone as good drams. And personally, when we find a whisky we like, we want to buy a full 70cl bottle of it. So we plan to always release 70cl bottles but we are looking into selling sets of smaller bottles as well in the future. At the moment 70cl is the most cost-effective for us and with that we’re able to pass that on our customers.
MALT: You mentioned to me recently that you both favour the same Benrinnes cask finish – can you reveal why and which one?
BRENDAN: We have similar taste when it comes to whisky so it’s not too much of a surprise it’s the same one, the Wee Brother is our favourite. I think its the distinct smoothness of the Wee Brother and its slightly longer on the palate than the Big Brother. However, many of our friends think the other way round. Its part of the fun trying them side by side and trying to work out what it is exactly that makes them different and what way the difference pushes you. Another one which I know you’ll also enjoy Jason is blending them together, perhaps a ’phiuthar?
MALT: Will the Benrinnes be a direct exclusive via your website initially?
BRENDAN: We have supplied a few shops that we’ve worked closely with before but the majority of bottles will be available through our website.
MALT: Any hints as to what’s next?
BRENDAN: Only a hint! It’s considered a Highland malt but I wouldn’t say this self-proclaimed “city” is in the Highlands.
Thanks to both Andy and Brendan for their time. Now, let’s check out this latest brother release…
Na Bràithrean Wee Brother Benrinnes 2008 Oloroso – Jason’s review
Distilled on 11th December 2008, this was bottled on 28th September 2020 with an outturn of 75 bottles at 48% strength.
Colour: used copper.
On the nose: varnish, heavy wood and rose chocolate. A slight beef savoury note, orange, mossy and dampness. Also a syrup sponge, bacon and caramel. Water unlocks more fruit.
In the mouth: quite sweet with more chocolate and wood features. A chewy texture. Chocolate Brazil nuts, varnish, red apples and rhubarb tart. Water reveals more wood, juicy oak, oily, vanilla and a pleasant amount of tannins.
Na Bràithrean Big Brother Benrinnes 2008 PX – Jason’s review
Distilled on 11th December 2008, this was bottled on 28th September 2020 with an outturn of 75 bottles at 48% strength.
Colour: white gold.
On the nose: a little confused it must be said. Undecided in some respects, unsettled. Pine needles, stewed apples, pencil shavings and pear. There’s also a cereal biscuit note, nutmeg and figs. Adding water reveals shoe polish, black peppery and a decaying woody nature.
In the mouth: much lighter than expected initially but the wood comes back midway. This feels more like Benrinnes. Spent tea leaves, sweet tobacco, milk chocolate and a Caramac bar. Also almonds, more black pepper with more traditional PX elements coming through such as figs, dates and some sugary coffee. Adding water unlocks raisins, caramel, blackcurrant and a slightly drying nature.
Quite a contrast between these two whiskies and it showcases the influence and differences that the PX and Oloroso hosts can bring to the experience. Neither can match the debut Caol Ila and that’s just a reflection of the quality of that distillery and its distillate right now. If you want to nose and taste the differences between a PX and Oloroso then this is your moment.
I played with both of these over several evenings. It is easy to see why Oloroso is in demand and so fashionable right now. It plays to the market and ticks all the boxes. The PX in comparison is more subtle, allowing more of the distillery spirit to poke through and takes time to work its magic. Arguably, six months isn’t enough to really see the effects of the PX – my thoughts are that it needs more time and we’re still in that honeymoon period before the foundations take shape.
In saying this though, the PX is the one that I would return to and that’s despite scoring it lower. There’s something there that is intriguing, whereas with the Oloroso you know exactly what you’re getting and nothing more.
So, if you want sherry and that’s your gig; buy the Oloroso. If you want a little more intrigue and work to go into your dramming, then the PX is the destination. And I should mix these, shouldn’t I?
Na Bràithrean Benrinnes 2008 Oloroso – Phil’s review
Colour: polished gold.
On the nose: toffee apples, orange, mead, light fennel. Strong woody notes with ground ginger and mace. A little melon, dried tea leaves and a hint of chocolate.
In the mouth: Golden syrup, candied orange peel, stewed apples. Then a surge of mouth-puckering woody spices – cinnamon sticks and cloves. The finish is warm, spicy and wood driven. Lingering notes of clove and drying oak.
Na Bràithrean Benrinnes 2008 PX – Phil’s review
Colour: pale gold.
On the nose: sweeter and fresher. Honey, banana and vanilla cream, praline, dried apricots. A
slight polish note with lighter woody notes than the Oloroso cask. Sultanas, ground cinnamon and ground clove.
In the mouth: Syrupy sweet with clove rock very apparent. Then stewed apples and sultanas along with fresh melon and apricot. Vanilla custard tart and milk chocolate. The finish is of decent length with hot toddy spice mix and creamy chocolate.
Two perfectly drinkable drams from ‘The Brothers’ but neither really set my world on fire. The Little Brother (Oloroso cask) had a promising start with a really engaging nose but was sadly let down but a very cask driven palate that meant there was an imbalance between the two. That Oloroso octave really made a powerful mark on the spirit but it was hard to see past the cinnamon, cloves and oak on the palate which totally dominated any fruitiness from the underlying bourbon cask.
The Big Brother was better balanced and more successful as a result. It was fairly simple, a straightforward affair that while tasty just didn’t deliver enough to really make me want to own a bottle.