What colour is that whisky?
This is a question I regularly pose to my wife, as one thing I particularly struggle with when it comes to tasting notes is describing a colour for the liquid. Usually, I attempt to come up with something fancy, such as “California sunrise” or “Autumnal leaf litter,” before eventually settling for gold or amber.
At the end of the day, colour is probably the most unimportant part of whisky tasting notes, especially when the review is accompanied by a picture, which should give you a good idea of the colour. However, to some people, the colour of their whisky is very important. After all, the best way to ensure sales of a malt is to use a very active sherry cask that makes it as dark as treacle. Despite the enthusiast market often shunning them these days, Macallan and Dalmore have certainly helped to exacerbate the luxury image for dark, sherry matured whisky down the years.
If the main thing you look for in a whisky is a dark colour, that’s absolutely fine. The first century Roman merchant and gourmand Apicius, purportedly coined the phrase “We eat first with our eyes”, and I think the same can be said for what we drink too. It’s why many of the big brands are still adding E150a caramel colourant to their products. It won’t make the whisky taste any better, but many consumers are not drawn to lighter coloured whiskies. The logic being that the darker the whisky is, the more flavour our brain tells us we will get in the glass. Even though in many cases it is untrue, the human brain is a powerful organ, and it can be difficult to change that thought process.
From a personal perspective, I’m always a little nervous when it comes to full sherry maturation or sherry finishes in whisky. It can work beautifully and add flavour and complexity to the spirit, without overwhelming the character completely. Unfortunately, many times, you just get a lot of sherry flavours, and not a lot else.
Recent batches of Aberlour A’bunadh would be one example where I think the sherry influence is a bit too all-encompassing for my personal taste. It’s not that the flavours are bad at all, it just isn’t what I look for in a single malt. I want some character from the distillate. Cask is king with all whisky, but in this case, it feels like the cask is holding all the cards, and the spirit is hidden away. I wouldn’t have minded trying the A’bunadh Alba, which was matured in ex-bourbon casks. Taylor reviewed it back in late 2019, and it sounds right up my street. I recently had a 13 year old, ex-bourbon matured Signatory bottling of Mortlach, a distillery with a distinct sherry influence in its core range, and it was beautiful. Earthy, minerally, with lots of sharp, sour orchard fruits and vanilla cream.
All of the finished whiskies from Tomatin start their life with an initial maturation in refill ex-bourbon hogsheads. These barrels do all the leg work, while the finishing cask puts the cherry on top. In this case, it was first fill Oloroso sherry butts. Was that finish for weeks, months or years? I can’t find any information on that unfortunately. Often, it can be hard to put an exact figure on, as each cask behaves differently, and is simply ready when it’s deemed ready.
Fermentation times at Tomatin are particularly long at around 168 hours, in order to bring out more of the fruity notes they are looking for in the new make. We’re certainly going to get fruity notes with the Oloroso influence, but let’s hope the spirit behind it gives us something too. What I would expect from the Tomatin spirit is some lighter fruits such as lemon and apple, with pepper and cinnamon spices and some floral, grassy notes. It’s what I get when I drink the 12 year old, which is matured in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, but feels more bourbon forward than sherry.
This whisky is bottled at 46%, with non-chill filtration and natural colour. It is available from Master of Malt priced at £84.90.
Tomatin 18 Year Old Oloroso Sherry Casks – Review
Colour: Amber… or should I say Autumnal leaf litter?
On the nose: The first thing that strikes me is a sweet toffee and black treacle, followed by a fruity and floral confectionery note, reminiscent of those cherry lips you see in pick and mix at the cinema. There’s some rosewater, toffee apple, raisin, cinnamon spice, a slight dusty earthiness and damp hay. The longer it spends in the glass, the more of those grassy hay notes come to the fore.
In the mouth: It’s a rather rich dram; I probably wouldn’t want to drink it all night! Sweet highland toffee creaminess is followed by bitter oak spice, sultanas, heather honey, 70%+ cocoa chocolate and a little tobacco. The finish is fairly long and oaky, with hazelnut, some cracked black pepper and salt.
The nose showed a huge amount of promise, and I thought this may score high. Thankfully, my initial reservations about the Oloroso finish overwhelming the spirit didn’t turn out to be the case, and I was still getting the lovely fruity, floral Tomatin signature with the spices coming through too. Unfortunately, I feel the palate lets me down a little. I find it a little bitter, oaky, and lacking any standout flavours or complexity. However, there is enough there to keep the score respectable, even if it doesn’t get my pulse racing.
Photo courtesy of Tomatin.