And in what seems like the blink of an eye, Watt Whisky is back with their difficult second outturn.
Now, I say difficult, not in terms of approachability. Although let’s be honest, I haven’t tried the whiskies below prior to writing this introduction, so you never know. I mean that we’re all optimistic and potentially a little more forgiving when a company is just starting out with their debut. I was pleasantly surprised by the overall standard of the Watt Whisky initial outturn. I shouldn’t have been, given the heritage of those involve and decades of experience. After all, their name is on the bottle and there’s an evident sense of pride and responsibility in such a feature.
Now, they are back in time for Christmas with a clutch of releases. This is the season of forgiving, giving and dropping hints around possible presents, so fingers crossed we have some potential candidates here. We’ll dive into these whiskies in a moment, but regulars may have noticed we’ve been taking the opportunity to ask a few questions of indie bottlers recently, from Chapter 7 to Single Cask Nation and Càrn Mòr whiskies. In doing so, we’ve been able to bring more insight into a brand, their motivations and the human element of it all. We’re thankful that Mark and Kate took time out to answer our questions and shed some of their wisdom here…
Malt: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Looking back over the debut release for a moment, did it meet expectations? What was the relief like to finally get the bottles out there?
M&K: Obviously it was a relief to finally get bottles out – it felt like it took us ages to get going but in actual fact, we probably only took about 6 months to get everything up and running and the first release out (once we actually started working on it properly anyway – We’d taken a few months off over Christmas and New Year then started working on things just as the pandemic hit!)
Mark: As for meeting expectations – we were certainly happy with it! Not sure what expectations I had, but having been in the industry for a long time I certainly had no rose-tinted fantasies that we’d be releasing Bowmore 1966, Caperdonich 1972, Banff 1976 and the like. If anything our expectations were realistic and I feel we have delivered on what we want to do – bottling good, honest, drinking whisky.
Kate: The feedback we got from the first release was overwhelmingly positive too – it was really gratifying to see all 5 casks getting consistently good, solid reviews and scores. Hopefully, that continues!
Malt: You’re both well versed in the whisky industry, were there any surprises when setting up your own independent bottling company?
Mark: It was the first time I’ve had to deal with an external bottling facility so that was new to me, however, working with the team at Claxton’s, the bottling has all been relatively straight forward. The biggest problem/hurdles have been dealing with delivery companies! I think one of the main problems is that Claxton’s is in the middle of no-where and we’re at the end of nowhere so getting whisky from A-B has been incredibly frustrating at times, but we are getting used to it!
Kate: I think for me, one of the (positive) surprises was that anything we expected to be really complicated and take ages (dealing with HMRC to get our WOWGR, setting up the company, business bank accounts, getting label approval from SWA) was actually quite straightforward and painless! As Mark said, it’s the annoying little things that we thought would be simple, like transport, which have proved more frustrating!
Malt: You’ve both been in the whisky industry for some time now, what’s the biggest change that you have seen during your careers?
M&K: Social media/the internet is definitely a big one. When we first started in the industry social media wasn’t even really a thing (we feel very old now!) and it certainly wasn’t widely used by whisky companies or brand representatives. (Probably a good thing for us in some of our younger, wilder days in the industry!) Now, consumers have much more access to knowledge online, which can be a good and a bad thing, and also much more access to, for want of a better word, brand personalities. There’s much more direct interaction between brands and the end consumer. And much more access to tasting notes, reviews, etc – in the old days you had to wait for Michael Jackson’s book to come out!
Mark: I think another major change is the number of limited releases that are coming out now, that are feeding the collecting/flipping market and adding to the FOMO culture. When I was at Royal Mile Whiskies nearly 20 years ago there would maybe be one major new whisky released a month and it was fairly easy to keep on top of new releases. Now it’s a minefield.
Malt: A question for Mark, as you’ve bottled at few casks over the years. If you could pick out 5 highlights, what would they be and why?
Mark: I have certainly bottled a cask or two over the years, and many do stick out so it’s difficult to pinpoint just five. Obviously bottling our first cask for Watt Whisky – a whisky literally with our name on it (Not something we initially wanted to do) was a real highlight, but then to begin with every Watt Whisky cask we do will be a highlight, the Inchgower was the first Inchgower we have ever done and the same with the Dailuaine etc etc.
It would be easy to pick through a list of casks from distilleries such as Banff, Brora, Kinclaith, Glen Mhor, Ardbeg, Springbank, etc etc A quick count through the Malt Whisky Yearbook and I have been involved with bottling casks from over 110 different Scottish Distilleries over the years. For me though, the casks that stand out are possibly some of the oddballs or ones that are memorable drams for different reasons other than just being great whiskies.
One that does stand out was the first Cadenhead’s Creation I did – Rich, Fruity Sherry 20yo Batch 1 – which was a marriage of 4 casks; a Bruichladdich, a Mortlach, an Invergordon and a Cameronbridge as it was the first of the Creations releases and something a little more challenging that just bottling a single cask where you just try a sample, like it and bottle it. I am by no means professing to be a master blender but it is something that I enjoyed doing.
Obviously, any of the Caperdonich’s from 1972 that I bottled at Duncan Taylor were highlights. At the time it was a distillery that didn’t have a huge following and you could pick them up fairly cheaply whereas now, alas, I am priced out of the market. One that sticks out in particular in the 1972 Caperdonich that we bottled for my best mate Mike Lord at the Whisky Shop Dufftown. I opened my last bottle of it in April for my 40th birthday, it was supposed to be shared with a few people who were to be celebrating with me, but I suppose the upside of COVID is I got to keep most of the contents of this bottle for personal consumption.
Another cask that springs to mind was an NC2 Craigellachie 1999 10yo [Ed: sister cask pictured above] that caught me completely by surprise. Myself and Stuart Robertson were tasting through around 10 or so cask samples of sister casks of Craigellachie when one stood out as being smoky. Initially thinking the sample must be tainted we drew another sample straight from the cask to confirm it was indeed smoky. We decided to bottle it with the strapline “surprisingly smoky’. Maybe not a whisky that won any prizes but definitely one that stood out for me.
A final cask that stands out for me is one that I didn’t actually bottle! That is the cask of Chichibu that Cadenhead’s recently bottled. I spent about 6 years working on Yumi and Akuto-san to get them to agree to sell us a cask and finally they agreed only for it to be bottled after I was no longer with Cadenheads – maybe in 2026 they will sell us a cask for Watt Whisky!
Malt: One aspect I’ve enjoyed so far is the unfashionable names that you’ve bottled such as Dailuaine, Inchgower and Mannochmore – was this a deliberate ploy, or just based on the whisky?
Mark: I’ve always been a champion of the lesser-known whiskies, the hidden gems if you will, even when working for companies that are able to bottle the big-name whiskies. So there is a touch of it being deliberate but in all honesty, it was down to the quality of the samples we tried and to the whiskies that we could afford to buy. We want our whiskies to come in at what we would consider reasonable drinking prices and the less fashionable names fall into that bracket a lot more readily. We’ve been offered casks of big-name whiskies and although technically we could afford them we wouldn’t be comfortable with the price points we would have to charge – even if they probably would sell at those prices. So it is a little bit by design and a little bit down to what is available to us.
Malt: On that note, you’ve also picked a grain which is great to see. How do the costs of grain casks compare generally to single malts and can we expect more grains from you?
Mark: I’ve always been a huge fan of well-matured grain whiskies, so it was always logical for us to bottle a grain whisky and we will do more in the future. Casks of grain generally are less than for comparative aged malt whiskies however the gap is narrowing – 10/15 years ago the price point for grain whisky was a lot further away from malt whisky than it is today.
Malt: You’re obviously a new company, family-owned with support from your initial crowd funders, which includes me. Mark obviously has a few contacts given his decades of effort, but maybe you’re not able to purchase everything you see. How are you finding the choice of casks and is the quality out there if you look hard enough?
K&M: It’s both easy and hard to purchase casks. If you have limitless pools of money you can buy plenty – we’ve been offered well over 2000 casks of whisky in the last 3 or 4 months. That’s not to say they are all things we would either want, or be able to afford, to buy. We’ve been lucky that we have good contacts in the industry and have been able to sample every cask we’ve bought prior to purchase. Contrary to public belief, this isn’t something that’s common. If you’re a more established company you can take a punt on a cask blind as, if it’s not right, you can afford to hang on to it for a few years or re-rack it. At the minute we don’t have the luxury of doing that so we can’t afford to take a punt on something we haven’t tried.
Mark: Overall there are plenty of casks available – not of older stock though – and as a new company it should be fairly easy to keep the selections fresh. What is difficult though is making sure you pay the correct price – I’ve been offered sister casks from different sources and the price of one was 5 times what the other offer was.
We’ve been lucky though that to date we have purchased casks from 7 different sources so we do have access to perhaps more lists than most people do. I also love spreadsheets and log every cask I’m offered so that I keep on top of current pricing trends.
Malt: It seems bizarre that during the course of this current whisky boom, an independent bottler is the only new addition to the ranks in Campbeltown. A hotbed of distilling that hasn’t attracted any new distilleries – why do you think this is?
Kate: No idea! I’m really surprised there haven’t been any new distilleries built here either. Not since Glengyle anyway, which was one of the first in the wave of new Scottish distilleries. Maybe Campbeltown doesn’t have the same romantic image as the likes of Islay and Speyside? All our distilleries are/were just crammed into the town rather than on a picturesque hillside/coast somewhere. (Although we do have plenty of both in the immediate vicinity) Or it’s perceived as being more inaccessible? Even though it takes way longer to get to Islay – people seem to forget that Campbeltown is only 30 minutes further on from Kennacraig. I don’t understand it.
Mark: This one totally baffles me as well, particularly when you look at the hassles people are having trying to build new distilleries on Islay. I would certainly welcome any new distillery into Campbeltown. There have been a few rumours of people looking to build in the region, but nothing concrete as yet. Anything that brings more people to Campbeltown certainly will get my support especially if they sell us some casks. If if they could build a local brewery as well that would be great – it is crazy that our nearest brewery is 87 miles away!
Malt: We’ve had a couple of finishes now, including the latest Orkney, is this a technique you’d like attempt more of? What motivated you to finish this Viking whisky and why a Port cask?
Kate: Not particularly to be honest! Neither of us are huge fans of finishes in general, and particularly not short finishes – the finishes we have bottled so far were re-racked by the broker, not by us. We wouldn’t actually have asked for samples of them had we known they had been finished for such a short time but that particular piece of information was missing from the cask list we were sent! It was only after we’d tried the samples, really liked them and decided we wanted to buy them that we discovered they’d been re-racked. It does probably mean we’ll be a little bit more open to different finishes in the future though!
Mark: I always said I didn’t want to do finishes – just like I said I didn’t want to have lots of packaging and now we have a whisky with a box and five labels! These whiskies were not finished by us. They’ve all been re-racked prior to us buying them – it was just a case of us trying the samples, liking them and then buying them. We can take no credit for the wood management on these or confirm what influence the secondary cask has had exactly as we had never tried them before they went into the new casks. We like them all though and bizarrely in the case of the port cask Orkney we were keen to get the whisky out of the port cask as quickly as possible before the port overpowered the whisky. Although the whisky is fairly pink in colour you certainly still get the distillery character coming through.
In the future, we may buy more finishes (if we like them) and we may finish some of our own casks, for example, if we bottle a rum it would be a good idea to re-use the empty cask, but it’s not something we are focussing on.
Malt: What’s your opinion on distilleries withholding their names from casks?
M&K: It’s a pain but at the end of the day it’s their right to do that and if it means we can still get our hands on it to bottle then fair enough. Historically when you bought un-named whiskies the prices were much cheaper than if it was a named distillery but prices are creeping up on the big named un-named whiskies these days too.
Malt: You’ve managed to put out a couple of releases in what’s been a hectic and unpredictable year for us all. In 2021, how often would you expect to release outturns?
K&M: We wanted to follow up the first release fairly quickly to make sure we got a second release out before Brexit. We’ll probably leave it until people have an idea of what is going on before bottling the next release so our next one will probably be sometime in early Spring 2021. We’re looking at doing 4 releases a year of 5-6 casks per time and perhaps the odd single cask for individual markets.
Malt: How far are you into the 3rd outturn and any hints?
K&M: We have a potential third release in place. It would be a very good release as it is however we’re waiting for some more samples to be delivered and looking to buy another 8-10 casks in the near future so we’ll maybe change things around a little. No hints yet I’m afraid in case we do change things around! Ideally in the future, we’ll always be 2 or 3 releases ahead of the game.
Watt Whisky Allt-a-Bhainne 1997 – review
Bottled at 23 years of age, this bourbon hogshead produced 241 bottles at 51.3% strength. You can pick this up via The Whisky Exchange for £123.
On the nose: a luscious arrival with caramel and honeycomb. Mace, sunflower oil, golden syrup and butterscotch, honey glazed apples and vanilla. A real sense of a good cask here. Water I felt wasn’t hugely beneficial, such is the poise offered from the off…
In the mouth: a vanilla custard with the emphasis on cream, Rich Tea biscuits and cracked black pepper. It all fits together nicely. Water brings out some chocolate, oats, fudge and plenty of resin and also the hint of plump soaked cherries.
Watt Whisky Dailuaine 2008 – review
This 12 year old is from a bourbon hogshead and is bottled at 57.8% and is an outturn of 312 bottles. Available via The Whisky Exchange for £54.95.
Colour: white gold.
On the nose: soft and creamy, barley drops and honeyed wheat. Silver Needle Tea and less stringent apples. Water brings out a lightness with pears and Key Lime pie.
In the mouth: that Dailuaine texture that is improved with water. Prior to that, you have soft apples, lime, creamy white chocolate, fresh white grapes and a sappiness. Water reveals more of the apples, wool and just enough of that waxy Dailuaine nature. I think this one will improve as you dig into a bottle.
Watt Whisky Girvan 1991 – review
A 29 year old grain whisky, taken from a bourbon barrel, which produced 186 bottles at 56.5% strength and is available via The Whisky Exchange for £91.95.
On the nose: a light and engaging grain, some elements of varnish, honey and almonds sit alongside nuttiness with vanilla, marshmallows and tablet. Adding water brings out more vanilla alongside freshly sliced apples.
In the mouth: some wood, caramel and hint of coconut. All nicely balanced. The addition of water delivers Highland toffee, creaminess, sawdust and a touch of pepper. The texture becomes just that little more oily and pleasureable.
Watt Whisky Inchgower 2007 – review
A 13 year old, bottled at 56% strength from a bourbon hogshead resulting in an outturn of 297 bottles. This is available via The Whisky Exchange for £60.95.
Colour: a very light caramel.
On the nose: vanilla, melon and sawdust. Light honey, green apples and a new bandaid followed by white chocolate and a hint of pomegranate. Adding water takes the edge of proceedings as expected, allowing caramel, grapefruit and more apples to show themselves.
In the mouth: initially the texture grabs you and then the youthful zing of an Inchgower takes over. The meadow fruits aren’t as fully formed as I’d have liked. Creamy, chalky, pears and apples with lemon peel. Water improves the texture; upping the oiliness and wholesome feel.
Watt Whisky Orkney 2006 – review
A 14 year old from a Viking distillery, bottled at 60.9% strength, this has been finished for 5 months in a Ruby Port cask, resulting in 307 bottles. This release will cost you £74.95 from The Whisky Exchange.
Colour: yeah, a pink-ish technicolour vibe.
On the nose: I get that Highland Park earthiness and some heather, mixed in with chocolate and red liquorice. It settles in the glass well, ushering out more of the port influence. Crepe paper, rhubarb and pink peppercorn all step out. A drop of water brings out raspberry, a freshly baked brownie and some of that earthiness again.
In the mouth: a luscious, chewy texture. Tart in places with red Gala apples and more peppercorns. Quite an active port cask! Chocolate, black cherry and yet it doesn’t go too sweet being underpinned by the Orkney peat and earthy nature. There’s a battle here, a Viking raid if you prefer; enjoyable to taste. Water softens that blow, it remains very drinkable and the peat is revealed more on the finish.
Kicking off with the Allt-a-Bhainne, a strong example of what this distillery can do with some patience. The nose and palate come together with some style. I actually found myself enjoying it and overlooking the specifics of notes. In the end, a real highlight of this outturn. The Dailuaine is softer, more rounded than some of the younger releases here. It has a touch of elegance but is also shy, I’ve drunk a lot of Dailuaine this year through choice for an article appearing later this month. This isn’t the best of the bunch, but it does benefit from a drop of water and patience. A distillery that always rewards a considered approach during the lifespan of a bottle.
The Girvan is a solid example and a good price for being practically 3 decades in age. In comparison, the official Patent Still 30 year old, at a reduced strength of 42%, will set you back nearly £400, which is just laughable. This Watt bottling has a little more to say than some of the youthful grains we’ve tried lately. Again, something you can reach for and enjoy without too much effort and under £100 to prompt interest.
A solid Inchgower, nothing more and nothing less. Something you can reach for and enjoy without too much effort or outlay. It reminds us that it can more than hold its own against more notable distillery names and fulfils the Watt brief of being good drinking whisky. The Orkney – sorry, Highland Park – showcases just what an all-rounder this distillate is when it comes to varieties of wood. I can see why Mark and Kate jumped on the phone after trying this to get it out of a fairly active port cask. In just 5 months there has been a real change, but you can still sense the old Highland Park warrior within. Some port finishes lean too far into sweetness and become lost. This one just hangs in there and a draw is a fair outcome.
So, another good selection of casks. Showcasing what’s possible with hard work and shopping around. If you’ve never tried Allt-a-Bhainne before, or remain on the fence, then this is the one to pick up. I always enjoy a Dailuaine, so that aside, if you’re into port casks then you’ll enjoy the Orkney cask.
Whiskies, lead image and graphics kindly provided by Watt Whisky, the NC2 which is provided by Whisky Specialist and the bottle shots via The Whisky Exchange. There are commission links above, which never impact our opinion and we’d also like to point out that these releases are available from Hall’s of Campbeltown, the Ardshiel Hotel and The Whisky Shop Dufftown.