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Dornoch Distillery Cask #001

If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.¹

This highly anticipated debut whisky from Dornoch distillery, in a year of debuts from Ardnamurchan, Dartmoor, Nc’Nean and Waterford², has in my mind, more than any recent release, underlined the passage of time. From bar workers to independent bottlers and then distillers. Phil and Simon have done things their way and kept ownership of their own beautifully small distillery while creating local employment opportunities. So much has happened in 2020, nevermind the last 3-4 years that its taken to reach this very moment.

It was back in August 2018, when we highlighted their Crowdfunder campaign and our excitement of the whole project. This wasn’t a distillery that could compete in the marketplace on the basis of price, availability or variety. Instead, they had to focus on flavour and doing things as much as possible in the old manner. Since then, many of you have discovered the Dornoch new make spirit, which is one of the best in recent times (arguably showing you don’t need consultants), or their knack for picking casks to bottle under the Thompson Bros. label.

The distillery team are whisky geeks and fans of the old-style whiskies that rarely appear during modern production methods. Assisted by the nearby resource that is the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar. In essence, it’s about flavour maximisation before the spirit can even dream about caressing a piece of wood. The old ways that can be summed up in a variety of ways; flavoursome barley and yeast strains, long fermentation, the human touch et cetera. Anyone that sources Glen Mhor yeast to propagate, has my attention for going that extra mile. Simon, Dornoch’s distiller, probably said it best in June 2018:

‘In terms of Single Malt production, our yields are lower than a proper distillery that is being industrially sabotaged and taking weeks to do what could be done in days (if you just wanted spirit fast). Phil controls the purse strings and is happy for me to keep buying the most expensive ingredients, taking ages and yielding low, since there has been nothing (that) tastes like what we do for a very long time.’

We may have a unique opportunity to try the inaugural bottling from Dornoch (cask #1) alongside my own private cask, which is, funnily enough, cask #2. Filled on the same day, these have resided in the same warehouse in different cask types. I haven’t tried my own cask since its first year, kindly letting friends try that initial sample as much as possible. Through effort, the second year check-up went to Rose in California; it’s good to share whisky, including your own cask.

A rule of cask ownership is that you are unable to bottle until Dornoch had made their own debut, which makes sense. Now that this is out of the way, many I presume will be bottling their own casks. People who know me, understand that patience is a forte. The whisky will tell you when it’s ready; I don’t need to bottle for money or to be first. So, we’ll give it a whirl and I’ll give some thoughts and a score on potential – as meaningless as it is for someone to review their own cask? I do appreciate the ludicrous nature of this endevour, but what’s whisky without fun? On seconds thoughts, seeing how I don’t have the latest yearly sample to hand, we’ll pause that comparison for now, but expect something in the near future.

Cask #001 was filled during July 2017 and bottled in November 2020. Featuring organic Floor Malted Plumage Archer and Brewers Yeast, it resided in an Ex-Oloroso (Solera) Butt (American Oak), so quite a special cask to utilise. Bottled at 59.4%ABV, the butt produced 893 bottles. This is priced at £95, which seems to be the market nowadays for most inaugural releases, however, these tend to be much larger outturns.

So, credit to the team for keeping the pricing down and trying to be fair when it comes to allocation in the face of ridiculous demand. What bottles were left, after being promised to the initial Crowdfunders, meant the 1400+ ballot entries were always taking on long odds – even with some unsavoury tactics adopted to try and increase their chances of success. Still, we all appreciate the opportunity and also bottling their first cask when other distilleries would have tried to sell it for a fortune or wait for a considerably longer period. And there’s the promise of a Golden Ticket for those that do break the seal in these crazy times. The lucky winner will receive their own cask which is a marvellous incentive and reward for someone out there. Yes, as expected, a bottle has already appeared on the secondary market. Such an act is to be expected and while there is a financial incentive to someone, the whisky and human effort that’s gone into this release should be celebrated and ultimately, enjoyed.

I was kindly given a sample of cask #001 to review, I’ll keep the bottle for a future tasting. When we’re all back together tasting, able to engage and exchange views. By then, hopefully, my own cask might have been bottled and if the cask owners of numbers 3-5 are out there; maybe we can do a deal and I’ll reward the fine people of Edinburgh and beyond, with a tasting of the initial batch of casks? The bottle itself is a 50cl size and actually well done, reminding me of the Edinburgh independent, The Bottlers and probably echoes my thoughts about this smaller size meaning more out there have an opportunity to try their whisky.

Dornoch Distillery Cask #001 – review

Colour: dulled gold.

On the nose: impressive arrival as there’s no harsh youthful tenacity here. Instead, we have sweet tobacco, figs, hazelnuts, honeycomb and ginger. Sooty in parts as well, a touch dirty which is welcome and autumnal decay. Bruised apples, cranberries, baked bread, basil leaf and caramel. A splash of water unlocks orange peel and Refreshers.

In the mouth: not as complex as the nose, yet this is saying more than many older whiskies nowadays. Walnuts, rubbed brass, ginger and a slightly chewy texture to remind you what’s going on. Chocolate brazil nuts, more red apples, cranberries and marmalade. Adding water reveals sage, tobacco and redcurrant jelly.

Conclusions

What a relief, a 3 year old whisky that doesn’t deliver a sense of disappointment served with a sidedish of youthful aggression. Harmony and balance are present here with plenty of character. The experience isn’t fuelled and propelled 100% by the sherry wood, which is clearly full of solera influence.

What’s even more remarkable is that this lot are self-taught and wonderfully determined to reach this point of releasing their whisky to the world. I cannot shake off the sense of a good Glenfarclas and I expect anyone tasting this will be surprised and delighted in equal measure.

I’m bouncing this around the 7ish mark and it is a close call. A lovely festive dram for this time of year – Christmas come early? For me, it has. A thoroughly enjoyable dram, in what has been a tough year for many of us. Sláinte!

Score: 7/10

¹ Bruce Lee, Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living.’
² A tongue-in-cheek article, hence the score.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Craig says:

    Always disappointing to not get through on the ballots that these guys do.
    Still, it’s a fairer system and hopefully one day I’ll manage to land one. Here’s hoping!

  2. Avatar
    PBMichiganWolverine says:

    Most folks will have a better chance of getting hit by lightening then having this one…but to the earlier point, the ballot system is the fair way to distribute

  3. Avatar
    bifter says:

    I’ve been discussing sherry casks with pals recently. Most of the whisky we see has been produced in ‘sherry-seasoned’ casks, fabricated attempts to replicate the old ‘transport casks’ that sherry would traditionally have been shipped over in. As you’ll know, that all ended in the 80s when regulations around geographical indication required that all sherry be bottled in Jerez. Thus, while it is likely that I’ve tried whiskies from genuine transport casks, I’ve probably never actually drunk whisky from an ex-solera cask.

    There are two aspects of this I’m curious about. One is that the sherry in the walls of the cask is likely to contain some very old (decades if not over a century of) sherry. The seasoning of modern casks is done with very youthful sherry thus one might expect a noticeable difference here. The other aspect is that the wood would be pretty much inactive, thus one would expect very little in the way of tannins or oak influence. Would you say you can identify either of these phenomena here?

    Unfortunately I missed out in the ballot too :'(

    1. Avatar
      Jason says:

      Hi Bifter

      I’d say they picked this cask for good reason. It is rich in flavour and I wonder if they’ve refilled it, to use again? You’re right in that the seasoning of casks deposits a different profile and while there are core flavours, the seasoning is more of a forceful gloss than a tapestry.

      We’re seeing seasoning deployed more as it relies on table sherry, almost vinegar or down the plughole. Cheaper and more plentiful (created in 2 years or less) than casks such as we have here. The ex-solera, if I’m trying to describe it, has a richer, more fortified and luxurious influence. Add that to the characterful Dornoch new make and you have a strong start.

      A good comparison against a more modern sherry cask is to be made when we see more from Dornoch in the coming years.

      Cheers, Jason.

    2. John
      John says:

      Hi Bifter,

      I think you also have to factor in the sulfur candles used to prevent the ex-wine casks from going bad. I’ve also heard that some ex-wine casks are left with or have some wine put into them so they don’t go dry and bad during the voyage.

      Ooooold sherry cask matured spirits tend to have this longer yet more subtle sherry notes while the contemporary ones are more like bursts of flavor but end up being flaccid after a bit.

      1. Avatar
        bifter says:

        Hi John. Sulphur is a bit of a contentious issue to some though very real, like you I’m sensitive to it. The practice of sterilising with sulphur candles only began in the ’80s but I understand this has not been done for a long time, although there are probably still some of those casks around. I also remember George Grant suggesting that sulphur notes could come from toasted European oak, which isn’t as good at removing sulphur compounds as charred American oak. I’m sure the debate will rage and I don’t think the industry has been very open about it.

        To be fair transport casks of old may have had all sorts in them prior to filling with sherry (as minimal wood interaction would be desired) and the length of time the sherry had to act upon the wood would have been variable (depending on travel time and then disgorging). I’m sure there were plenty of bad casks as well as good. At least, with seasoning, the producers have the chance to monitor and control production standards. Macallan even have a dedicated Master of Wood (snork). However, of course, the economics don’t allow for decent sherry to be used. To me, it’s bizarre that they are essentially artificially recreating something that is now a bygone practice. Ironically you could say Bourbon casks, latecomers that they were to the industry, are now more ‘genuinely traditional’ than sherry casks!

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