Cats in gangs, cats in bins, cats on whisky labels…
We’ve seen an influx of all things feline related recently in our whisky realm. The cat has become the universal image for Clynelish. A subtle way to underline the origins of a whisky without stepping on the toes of Diageo, who seemingly value the brand despite not having done much with it other than the classic 14 year old expression.
A quick glance at the photograph on the right-hand side will confirm the presence of the Clynelish name with an Asian inspired cat, looking all smug and confident on the bottle. I’m a big fan of the design and packaging on display here. I immediately thought of the classic 1960s 12 year old Ainslie and Heilbron bottling. A bottle I’ve been fortunate to try previously yet is now out of my price range. Well, it ain’t, if I stop enjoying Glen Mhor and others for maybe 6 months or so, but you catch my drift. It’s gone beyond what I consider to be reasonable.
Of course, those who are knowledgeable in all things Clynelish will know that the Ainslie and Heilbron bottling was produced at the distillery we know as Brora today; the great one. In 1968, Clynelish came online to eventually replace Brora which was an ageing relic and doomed when the closures of the 1980s landed. So much history lost, but Brora survived. At times I’m not sure how as my various visits to the site over the decades and discussions with members of the distillery always brought up the topic of Brora. The inaction, confusion and reluctance to do anything with the decaying site from Diageo. The still room that I was fortunate to enter on a couple of occasions was particularly depressing with the roof rotting away, allowing birds to literally do their business on the stills.
What history tells us is, if the site was of value such as those of Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor, both situated in the city of Inverness. Brora would have been sold off and today we’d be looking at a residential estate, shopping centre or commercial enterprise. A terrible fate for any distillery and a fate that befell many across Scotland.
That’s in the past as we now have to be all-singing and dancing cheerleaders of excitement when it comes to the resurrection of Brora. Time will tell. It strikes me the only reason why Brora survived in some decaying form was because of Clynelish across the road. In Scotland, listed buildings (Brora enjoys Listed B status) are by their nature fickle and expensive commodities. You can either restore the building/s at great expensive and nativating red tape, or let them decay into the ground. That’s a scenario that played out at Ballindalloch, where the owners had that choice. Fed up of looking at, and being asked about, the decaying shell of an 1820’s farm steading on a prominent part of their land, the team embarked on a 3 year project to turn it into the gorgeous distillery it is today.
Brora was mainly used for warehousing during its slumber and with the exception of Bowmore, it still remains the most atmospheric warehouse that I’ve explored. I’m happy, but also somewhat fearful of what the future holds. And in that, I also include Clynelish, which I hope isn’t pushed aside by rampaging whisky geeks and tourists, who given the choice would rather do the Brora tour than the modern construct that is a little ugly in comparison. Diageo hasn’t cared about the Clynelish brand to any massive degree. It’s been the word of mouth from enthusiasts and the sterling work of independent bottlers that have kept a sustained interest in the distillery. Happy to release the odd distillery exclusive that scores on the hot and youthful chart, or the Clynelish Select Reserves (remember those?), which were a little pedestrian and overpriced. Frankly, that’s a D minus for effort and it’s about time Diageo did more.
So, with all that said and done, we’re faced with an independent bottling. A joint effort between the chaps at the Malt Affair, who we’ve interviewed previously and the world famous Auld Alliance, also in Singapore. A bar that I could find some enjoyment in, one day.
This Clynelish is matured in a bourbon cask before being bottled at 49.9%, this is available directly from the Malt Affair for $550. Distilled on 29th October 1997, bottled at 21 years of age at 49.9% strength. Thankfully matured in a bourbon cask – we’ve had too many sherry dominated Clynelish releases recently, on paper, this is potentially the Karen Carpenter of whisky harmony.
The Malt Affair Clynelish 1997 21yr ‘Meow Meow’ – review
Colour: white gold.
On the nose: a very assured arrival, you immediately recognise the Clynelish DNA. Barley drops, candle wax, vanilla, overly ripe apples and sweetcorn. Silver needle tea, freshly baked shortbread and there a citrus element of freshly squeezed clementines. Runny honey brings more sweetness or is that tinned syrup as there’s a hint of metallic here without overdoing it? Then, beneath all the flashy bits are rice pudding, clear gel glue and sandalwood. The overall form is impressive without putting up billboards. Lemon oil, white chocolate and a wisp of smoke. Ok, water time; lime jelly, glucose
In the mouth: a coarse vanilla, gives way to caramel and a hint of wax once again taking the form of boot polish. Orange pips, bitter wood in places that keeps you on your toes. Black grapes on the finish, a little liquorice as well. It feels wrong to add water to something that is pitched so admiringly. Oh, I’m glad I did as the waxiness goes up a notch giving us waxed tropical fruits. Quite delightful. Orange zest, Caramac, very resinous with tea-notes and bitter wood. Camphor. The lesson here folks is always to try a splash of water. Delightful.
A classy Clynelish. Probably the best modern-era Clynelish I’ve had in some time. A real joy to experience on the eve of a difficult day ahead. It lifts the spirits. While I doubt I’ll be able to afford the modern Frankenstein Brora, here’s to the ugly looking distillery over the road that’s capable of delivering knockout blows on its own terms.
We should say few words about the pricing, although given this is what it retails for in Singapore, means comparisons are more difficult. The Singapore dollar means that this clocks in at just under £300. Given where it is and the costs of releasing this on the other side of the world, I don’t think that’s too unreasonable. Perhaps a bit too much for our own wallets here in the UK, but locally, this could be reasonable. What’s the going rate for a 20+-year-old Clynelish in the UK? Depends on the retailer and bottler, but with everything limited flying off the shelves we’re around £250 and rising. Although a recent 22yo sherried release from Signatory has come in at £295. Throw in an eye-catching label and we’re over that threshold. I know I’d buy it for the artwork. All that’s missing is the word, Tormore.