If you dislike a whisky before you have even tried it, can you sensibly review it? This is what Jason must feel like every time he faces down another Jura, although it seems that he has had a fair few pleasant surprises recently. Maybe that is the answer, go in with the mindset that a pleasant surprise could be on the cards; prepare for the worst and hope for the best. But what if it is about more than just the liquid itself? This is the situation I find myself in with this new range from a bottler and brand that I otherwise regard very highly. I am deeply frustrated that Cadenhead’s have done away with the Small Batch range in favour of the new Original collection. The focus of this piece, however, is not about why I find it so vexing, but how I go about reviewing the whisky; with a little experimentation and some external input. Nevertheless, please indulge me in a small rant, a background to today’s reviews if you will, and I shall try to make it brief.
Stock. I understand that stock is an issue; a reliable source informed me that there will no longer be sufficient stock for the Authentic Collection in ten years’ time at the current rate of outturns. Variety; I grant that it makes little sense to have two cask strength ranges. Hand-in-hand with variety, cost; a potential customer with less than £50 to spend should not be forced to shop elsewhere. They used to be 46%, it is how it used to be, ergo it is best, stop whining. A weak argument, but still an argument, although I have one word for the past is best brigade; Brexit. I hope you all enjoy your last Christmas with affordable Brie. The Original Collection is here to solve all these problems. Not the Brie, to be clear, that is on BoJo, and it is looking more and more likely that we are going to be up a creek without a paddle come January. Anyway, I digress.
Adding variety, and more affordable variety at that, is admirable, not to mention that Cadenhead’s is a business after all, and we should not begrudge them going after a larger market share. In the first release of this new range there are four youngsters which accomplish this, although I am not sure that customers on a budget will be looking for a twenty-something year Glenrothes at around the £100 mark. If they were, as I write this, they could buy something similar, at higher strength, for over £20 less. The same goes for the Strathclyde; you can buy more for less. Something does not add up here. It seems to me that there is a better, almost bewilderingly simple solution, one that tackles all of the above problems, satisfying all customers of every budget. As I sit here, hammering away at my keyboard, without any knowledge whatsoever about the inner workings of this company, I am sure that you will agree that I am definitely best placed to make such a pronouncement. So, drum roll please, my solution is; less whisky. Just release less whisky. Not a lot less, just a bit less. There are too many outturns, and each outturn has too many bottles. The truth is that there are a lot of bottles sat on shop shelves, physical and online, unloved and not being drunk. It is unnecessary to have such a huge selection on what feels like a monthly basis. A few well-judged outturns per year would be plenty, and you could cover all your bases in each one, with some affordable sub £50 vattings at 46%, a few choice single casks, and finally, les pièces de résistance, a happy middle ground of small batch cask strength releases. There, surely that satisfies everyone? It works for me.
Right, back to the task at hand. I am annoyed, if you could not already tell, about Brie, about the Small Batch range, about this whole damn year! I am emotionally compromised. I think the new Original Collection is a mistake, but I still want to try it and give you my thoughts (they could taste alright I suppose), but my negative preconceptions are bound to colour my reviews. You see my dilemma. To solve the conundrum, I have decided to try a little experiment. The premise is as follows:
1. Buy two bottles from the Original Collection.
2. Split each into 14 5cl drams.
3. Review my two drams as objectively as possible.
4. Send out 13 blind pairs at cost to willing participants from the London whisky club.
5. Ask them for tasting notes and scores out of 10 for each.
6. See how far astray my grumpiness has led me.
A fairly simple proposition. My hypothesis, as already stated, is that my negativity will affect my reviews, but I am also curious to see by how much. I suppose this ties back to my comments made in a previous piece about people taking whisky reviews far too seriously. As with all things in life, one person’s heaven is another’s hell, and I put it to you that it is no different for whisky. If you get enough people to give an opinion, there will be highs and lows that cancel each other out; just another classic case of regression towards the mean. You need only look at Whiskybase to see this at play; the overwhelming majority of scores are somewhere between 79 and 92, and going back every year for the last five years the average score is, big surprise, 86. This just shows that taking reviews and scores as gospel is pointless, and it will be down to sheer luck if your own experiences happen to match up. Remember, it is all just a bit of fun! Anyhow, I am curious to see whether the same phenomenon will apply here with such a small sample group.
A quick word on practicalities, as nothing ever goes as smoothly as one envisages, and it turns out that eliciting short and sweet tasting notes and scores from thirteen people is only marginally easier than herding cats. It quickly became apparent that providing twenty-eight reviews here was going to be a little silly, so what I have decided to do is edit and collate them into a more visual and easily digestible form, in other words, primary school level word clouds. I have had to employ a little artistic license to do this, and so I apologise in advance to my volunteers, but I am sure that you will agree that this is neither the time nor the place to debate the differences between Gala and Cox apples; hold that thought for the Saturday cider sermons. For our purposes here they are both just ‘apple’. Similarly, strawberry sauce and strawberry laces are just ‘strawberry’. Spicy, spices and spice are ‘spice’. I am sure you get the idea, however, I have tried to remain as true to the originals as possible, and so things that I felt are rather distinctive flavours I have kept separate, such as milk chocolate and dark chocolate. Should bara brith really be separate from fruit cake? I will be honest, first of all, I had to Google it. The way I see it though, this is probably someone’s memory of tasting a favourite Welsh granny’s speciality, and I will be damned before I reduce it to an ordinary fruit cake. The system is not perfect, but it will suffice. Onwards to the reviews.
Deanston 10 year old 46% – review
Cadenhead’s Original Collection, a vatting of 80% bourbon and 20% Madeira casks. RRP £40.
Colour: White wine.
On the nose: Light, floral. Thin supermarket honey, malt extract, grape must. Cooking apple. Sultanas. With water; dates, raisins.
In the mouth: Sharp and sweet. Honey, malt, apple, cut grass. Very bitter oaky finish. Water is essential, it is creamier and less bitter. Mace and white pepper. A little lemon zest too.
The council of thirteen:
Scores: 4, 5, 5, 5, 6, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, 8, 8.
Dufftown 10 year old 46% – review
Cadenhead’s Original Collection, a vatting of 50% bourbon and 50% PX sherry casks. RRP £40.
Colour: Maple syrup.
On the nose: Demerara sugar, dates, raisins, cinnamon, plums. Sandalwood, Black cherry pipe tobacco. Blackcurrant chewits. With water more aromatic pipe tobacco.
In the mouth: Decent mouthfeel. Brandy-soaked raisins, dates, figs, syrup sponge, dark chocolate, walnuts, allspice. Cigar box in the finish. With water nothing new and worse mouthfeel.
The council of thirteen:
Scores: 4, 4, 5, 5, 5, 5, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 8, 8.
I will begin with the Dufftown, which is clearly the more straightforward of the two. I found it to be a pretty standard heavily sherried whisky, without much defining character or complexity; I was hoping for a little more of the bourbon influence, despite the colour. My notes seem to correlate pretty well with those of the group, though I am surprised that more people did not find tobacco, which I thought was prominent and added something of interest beyond the usual sherried fruits. Overall, I would say that it is perfectly pleasant for what it is, and the price, without being anything to write home about, so pretty average I suppose, and I have scored it as such. To my surprise, this is in agreement with the group when looking at their scores. A score of 5 is the modal value, while the group mean is just a tiny fraction above average. So there you have it, contrary to what I thought, my negativity does not seem to have clouded my judgment on this occasion.
The Deanston threw up a few more curveballs. While the notes on the Dufftown were all recognisable variations on a sherried theme, there were many more differences in this case, with several finding surprising flavours of salt, peat, and even some meat. Having said that, the majority also agreed on what I would imagine to be most people’s notion of a classic Deanston profile; honey, vanilla and cereals. I found only the honey, and was left wishing for the other two. Perhaps knowing that this was a Deanston is what really threw me off, not any negativity for the range. I was hoping for lots of cereals and orchard fruits, but in the end felt that the inclusion of Madeira detracted from those classic bourbon notes, rather than adding to them. Sharpness and bitterness were the lasting impressions for me, though water did bring a more pleasant creamy texture while alleviating some of that bitterness. Overall, though not entirely unpleasant, I definitely thought that it was the worse of the two drams. This does not agree with the general consensus when we look at the scores, as only one other enjoyed it as little as I. My score of 4 is two points below the mode as well as the mean, which has the group ranking this just above average. So, was this preconceived negativity, or just not my favourite Deanston?
I had a lot of fun reading and comparing everyone’s notes, seeing what they thought of these two drams completely blind. In terms of the new range, however, the group’s input has only reinforced my negative preconceptions. Despite my theory that I would see regression towards the mean, my hope was that I would be wrong, especially with a sample group of this size, and that the means would in fact be well above average. If my scores were then disproportionately low, I would know that it was just my grumpiness and fear of change at fault, not the quality of the actual whiskies. The end result, however, is that one of these whiskies is unremarkable, and the other only slightly less so. You could still argue that they fulfil their affordable ‘entry level’ roles, average at worst and anything more a bonus, but the market out there is already brimming with variety, quality and value at this level. They really need to be better if they want to stand out. If our hypothetical customer on a budget has discovered Cadenhead’s, then the likelihood is that they will have also encountered the likes of Signatory Vintage, James Eadie, North Star and the Carn Mor range from Morrison, to name but a few. These bottlers are all producing fantastic options in that £40 to £50 category, both small batch vattings at minimum 46%, and even some single casks.
For the time being I cannot see myself being a repeat customer. I do not think that I am the only one left feeling a little deflated, as the delayed Caol Ila still hangs about on shelves long after its release. I will continue to mourn the Small Batch range, as for me personally it means a reduction in variety from Cadenhead’s, however there are plenty of other fantastic options out there as stated. I would rest more easily if this were limited to the affordable entry releases, but I am left feeling a little uneasy with the bizarre inclusion of those two premium bottles in the first release. (I have since tried the Glenrothes, but I do not want to add any further insult to injury). I can only hope that Jason’s theory is correct, that they were an attempt to add a little sparkle to the first outturn, and not an ominous sign of things to come. A watering down, quite literally, of Cadenhead’s quality across the board would be a very sad state of affairs indeed.
Finally, if they are reading this, I would love to hear from my tasting volunteers. Now that the bottle contents and price tags have been revealed, I am curious to know whether our conclusions differ.