Back in July, Taylor put out the call – he wanted a hit of sherry cask matured whisky. At Signatory Vintage, at least, they appear to have listened.
There are dozens of independent bottlers and you can’t buy everything. Therefore, I try to stick to the bottlers I trust to deliver. For years (until North Star also came along) my general rule – with a Cadenheads dalliance here or a Gordon & MacPhail liaison there – was to trust Signatory Vintage and their iconic cask strength range.
Helping matters is the consistent supply of Signatory Vintage to Australia, which, if anything, seems to have only improved in recent years. To stick with Signatory recently though, you had better have a taste for sherry casks. Let’s look at some of the cask strength products in the most recent shipment to Australia:
Benriach 2000, 20 year old, matured in a refill butts then finished in a fresh sherry butt for 8 months
Blair Athol 2008, 12 year old, matured in refill hogsheads then finished in a fresh sherry butt for 25 months
Bunnahabhain 2009, 11 year old, entire maturation in a first fill sherry butt
Caol Ila 2010, 10 year old, entire maturation in a refill sherry butt
Clynelish 1995, 25 year old, entire maturation in a refill sherry butt
Glenallachie 2008, 12 year old, entire maturation in a first fill sherry butt
Glenlivet 2006, 14 year old, entire maturation in a first fill sherry butt
Mortlach 2010, 11 year old, matured in refill hogsheads, then finished for 15 months in a fresh sherry butt (reviewed below)
Pulteney 2008, 12 year old, matured in refill bourbon barrels, then finished for 33 months in a fresh sherry butt (reviewed below)
Strathmill 2006, 13 year old, matured in refill hogsheads then finished in a fresh sherry butt for 8 months (reviewed below)
That’s…a whole lot of sherry maturation and finishing. The overall pattern seems to be – other than the exceptions entirely matured in sherry butts – to start the aging in refill hogsheads/butts and, after a respectable aging period, to supercharge the end result in fresh sherry butts. No fancy cask finishes here. At Signatory, they’ll stick to their formula and leave rum, tequila, Champagne, stout or red wine finishes to the braver at heart.
Colour sells, I guess. Call me pernickety but, as a fan of Blair Athol, I’d be just as curious to know what the end result might have been with another 5 years in the refill hogsheads – unless these were dud casks that just weren’t delivering. At least the somewhat limited age statements keep prices affordable for the everyday punter.
I wrote about more of these sherry cask releases from Signatory a few months back; all four reviewed in that article were from first fill sherry butts. I almost certain, before opening a few from this new range, that there won’t be a “bad” or even “poor” whisky here. My hope, at least, is to not see the distillery character obliterated.
I’m aware “sherry casks” may not be what they seem to the general public and are almost always only sherry seasoned. The Malt readership know the drill and it doesn’t need to be litigated here. In the context of this review, all I am concerned with is the end result.
Today, I will review three from the above list that were finished in fresh sherry butts to judge the results of this aggressive finishing regime.
First up we have Diageo’s Strathmill, rarely officially bottled as a single malt outside of Flora and Fauna releases. Instead, the lion’s share of Strathmill’s annual output makes its way to blends such as J&B. Independent releases aren’t copious either, making this – for me – a learning experience.
Signatory Vintage Strathmill 2006 13 Year Old, Cask No.6 – Review
Distilled 24 October 2006 and bottled 31 August 2020. 706 bottles produced at a punchy 61.2% ABV. Available in Australia between $200-$220 depending on the retailer. At time of writing still available in Australia here or in the European market here.
On the nose: honestly, I may not have picked this as malt whisky blind, such is the strength of the sherry finish. There is dessert wine off course, sherbert and musk sticks, some salted pretzels, and cinnamon donuts. Runny warm plum jam and melted butter on toast. The cask is certainly clean (and dominant), no unwanted sulphur here.
In the mouth: Cloyingly sweet malt whisky, sponge cake, demerara syrup, maple syrup on waffles. Then cappuccino ice cream, Scotch finger biscuits, marbled chocolate and also chocolate fondant. After some time in the glass the lightest wisps of burned matches and flint arrives on the palate, but these aren’t unwelcome. A couple drops of water bring a needed levity with creaming soda and jellybeans.
A whisky that some may rate a 10 if it is your style. Perhaps a dram for a certain time and a place. It took 8 months in a fresh sherry butt to produce these flavours and Colour: I’d safely venture that butt was hyperactive. What character is left of the original distillate? Very little, I’ll need to search for that elsewhere; however, the value is fine and for me the score is above average.
Next up, the Mortlach. Fairly widely available as a single malt, the ‘beast of Dufftown’ seems to have recovered from its premiumisation misadventure. Similar to Strathmill, Mortlach’s output is mainly used as a component in Diageo blends. However, I’ve owned more than a few independent bottlings – usually Gordon & MacPhail – where the quality of the distillate isn’t to be denied.
Signatory Vintage Mortlach 2010 11 Year Old, Cask No. 10 – Review
Distilled 8 February 2010 and bottled 16 April 2021. 705 bottles produced at a potent 57.8% ABV. Available in Australia between $200-$220 depending on the retailer. At time of writing still available in the UK here for £99.95 or in Australia here or here .
Colour: Darker caramel
On the nose: Lighter than I might have been expecting. You need to really get up close to this one to start to get the brown sugar, fried banana fritters, syrup and hot fudge. Some soil after a rainfall, caramel sauce on pancakes, cherries. A clean cask, no off notes here – though it is all cask on the nose.
In the mouth: One of the thickest drams I’ve tasted in all my years; honestly, this is like chewing on caramel. A slight tinge of alcohol before molasses, polished leather, fruit mince and earthiness. Mars bars, mint tea and perhaps a little metallic. I add water to see what else may be lurking in these depths and retrieve gingerbread, candlewax and boiled oranges. Similar to the Strathmill, some light sulphur is to be found – I am no fan of sulphur generally but can’t knock its appearance here.
More so than the Strathmill, the character of the original distillate shone through in this dram. This was finished for 15 months in the fresh sherry butt and I would argue it was bottled not a moment too soon. A dram that wouldn’t disappoint anyone looking for the sherry experience but ultimately falls at the same score as the Strathmill.
Finally, Old Pulteney is the best-known single malt and most widely available out of this troika of drams. I’ve generally overlooked its official bottlings, though the feedback is that they are solid if not spectacular. Pulteney isn’t regularly independently bottled so this is something of a treat for me to taste.
Signatory Vintage Pulteney 2008 12 Year Old, Cask No. 15 – Review
Distilled 27 May 2008 and bottled 16 April 2021. 652 bottles produced at a perky 55.8% ABV. Available in Australia between $200-$220 depending on the retailer. At time of writing still available here or here and in the UK market herefor £99.95.
Colour: Golden sunset.
On the nose: The yin to the Mortlach’s yang. Salty, briny, with crabs legs and lobster flesh and seaweed crackers. There appears to be a more coherent, equitable meeting between cask and spirit and I note this was finished for 33 months – more a second maturation – which tells me that the sherry finish took a while to stick. An oily rag (perhaps the one my 1985 Mitsubishi Colt ran on during my Uni days), sandpaper and vegetable roots.
Having done these three nosing sessions consecutively, before tasting anything, this is easily the dram that asks – nay, demands – me to drink it on the spot.
In the mouth: Yes, this is what good malt whisky is about. A balance, a harmony, between spirit and cask. All those coastal aspects are there from the nose, with an oily texture and some wood oil. Dried seaweed on rocks at the beach. Some fried mango, peanut shells, sesame oil, Vegemite. There’s complexity here, there is depth; one of the better Signatory Cask Strength releases in recent memory.
Anything can happen when the right independent bottler acquires the right spirit and the right casks. There are sister bottlings around of this Pulteney, perhaps worth your effort to seek out if you can no longer find this release.
Not what I expected when I saw it had a 33-month finish in a fresh sherry butt. Given the colour, the almost three-year finish, and the persistent maritime character of the whisky, you’d garner the wood was not too active. The result is a marriage made in whisky heaven.
All prices are in Australian dollars.