I remember a time at the start of my whisky journey when a bottle strength of 40% ABV was more than enough. My own enjoyment of a dram came with a drop of water, or a few ice cubes to round out those alcohol vapours or spirit burn. The only flavour, the taste of whisky, was delicious with those simple notes of sweetness, vanillas, and caramels bringing me to a level of enjoyment that I was seeking.
Comparing and contrasting different drams was an essential exercise to begin picking out certain profiles and tasting notes as I trained my nose and palate. Making up a small whisky flight of an entry level Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey and bourbon was a lot of fun in determining different levels of sweetness, floral notes, and sometimes a little waft of smoke.
Today a lot of whisky enthusiasts, myself included, seek a higher ABV from their bottle purchases. From the start of their whisky journey as their own preference develops, the minimum bottling strength of 40% ABV is simply not enough. Those high level ABV’s and cask strength expressions give us an uncut look into the complete flavour profile that the master blender or distiller seeks to share with us.
Nothing is watered down (to a mass-produced level) or extracted from the whisky (e.g. chill filtration). The fun lays in what we plan on doing with the high ABV expression. What does it taste like straight up? Does it change any way with a little water or, a touch of ice? Has anyone ever fired a cask strength whisky into a cocktail/mixer?
I had a huge amount of fun in tasting these 3 expressions, uniquely all from the same producer. Given that other cask strength Campbeltown whiskies aren’t as accessible today, I was super pleased to be able to pick these up and delve into the region, especially in the upper levels of ABV.
So what can I tell you about these bottlings?
First in this flight is the Victoriana, bottled at 54.2% ABV, finished in deep charred oak casks. Glen Scotia calls it “a modern interpretation of a classic Victorian style Campbeltown malt.” It is non-chill filtered and presented natural colour, as stated on the label. An online search guide us to an age range of roughly eight to 16 year old whisky in the bottle. Retail price at the time of purchase was £64.95.
Glen Scotia Victoriana – Review
On the nose: A punchy and pungent nose. Fresh lemon and quite a green blast initially. Slightly floral, maybe some lavender and sweet perfumed. Some spice lingers at the back end of nosing. I get a little cinnamon spice mixed into more sweetness, kind of like a sweet and sticky dough. A mixture of vanilla and milk chocolate rounds it off with some oakiness as well.
Adding a little water, the nose changes, with much more sweetness. It becomes more malty. Biscuity. More sugars, icing sugar… maybe even some dense muscovado sugar in there too. A spice explosion after water added. Cinnamon and ginger right up there with that oakiness.
In the mouth: The fresh lemon on the nose is the first taste; I’d describe it as a sherbet lemon sweet. It’s a little prickly on arrival, probably down to the high ABV, but the mouthfeel is so fresh and covers every part of the mouth. It’s a little effervescent too. The spice changes on the nose to the taste, no cinnamon coming through, but it’s replaced by a clove and orange blast. More of the nose coming through on the taste. Floral and perfumed like I found on the nose. The green aspect would be quite like pine trees that finish off the lovely complex taste of this whisky.
Adding a little water, the taste is very similar to the nose. Much more sweetness. That fresh mouthfeel on initial sip being kiwi and watermelon. It’s delicious and refreshing. The mouth feel is quite dry with water, I’ve never experienced that before. Yummy!
Second is the 12 Year Old Seasonal Release. Bottled at 54.7% ABV, this is finished in a combination of heavily charred and oloroso casks. It is unpeated. There’s no mention of natural colour or filtration. Retail price at the time of purchase was £74.95.
Glen Scotia 12 Year Old Seasonal Release – Review
Colour: Light Amber
On the nose: Bags of fruit and sweetness on arrival. Really inviting nose, you wouldn’t think this was 54.7% ABV. Boiled sweets come to mind, with some typical corn syrup that I’d associate with majority of bourbons. That charred American oak influence coming through. I don’t know if it’s due to the Christmas period, but I’m smelling some festive mince pies here with icing sugar on top. Loads of spice and dried fruits. The boiled sweets remind me of Jolly Rancher sweets, especially the green one (candied apples perhaps?). This is such a dense and fruity nose. Like juicy, mushy pears. It’s so good!
Adding a little water: Think of a huge bowl of fruit, with pears, apples and bananas all thrown in together. That’s the only change to the nose with water.
In the mouth: Spice and more spice. Clementine’s, nutmeg and cinnamon. Think of thick sliced of red apples cooked in brown sugar. Throw in cinnamon with raisins and sultanas. It’s all there in the taste. I can pick out dense fudge and sticky caramel. The caramel lingers until the end of the sip with a touch of oak. The ABV is great. Doesn’t burn whatsoever and just leaves a lovely warmth overall.
Adding a little water: Much softer taste with some water. Syrup sweetness with those clementine’s and cinnamon. That syrup sweetness is joined by cola cubes sweets, some cola bottles, and those boiled sweets yet again. It’s malty. Soft tasting. Silky like milk chocolate and caramel. It didn’t need water, but it just adds another element to this already fantastic dram.
Finally, we have The Campbeltown Malt Festival 2020 14 Year Old Tawny Port [Peated]. No surprises, there’s a Tawny Port finish on this one. Coming in at 52.8% ABV, with natural colour, and non-chill filtered. This is the only peated expression of the three whiskies in this review. Matured in a mixture of American oak hogsheads, medium char American oak, and 1st fill bourbon casks. The final 6 months are spent finishing in the Tawny Port casks. Retail price at the time of purchase was £69.95.
Campbeltown Malt Festival 14 Year Old Tawny Port Finish – Review
On the nose: Bit of smoke on this one. You get the welcoming match smoke and coal on arrival. So far so good! I wouldn’t describe this as a ‘funk’, which is synonymous with Campbeltown whiskies. But it does carry that industrial and oily character on the nose. I really like it.
Moving past that you get some freshness and green on the nose. Sliced green apples, with some cut green grass. You’ve got some dusty wood there with damp leaves. It’s ever so slightly meaty, like a cooked ham. A little salty too.
Adding a little water: More salinity on the nose. Sea-side spray, and more herbaceous that I’d imagine. Water bringing out that meatiness from before.
In the mouth: Wafts of smoke as expected, but a surprising taste of berry jam is there. I’d say strawberry and raspberry jam. It really coats the mouth on first sip. I get some gummy sweets in there too. A dense fruit salad, from a tin. Kind of like tinned peaches too. It’s a bit astringent on the tongue. Not overly prickly given the high ABV but again it’s lovely and warm. On the back end you have chocolate digestive biscuits all accompanied by that wafty smoke that’s ever present.
Adding a little water: Lemon opens on arrival. Much more sweetness with a bit greener apple. Softer smoke with water added. Creamy and softer cheese coming through too. Don’t add too much water. I’ve found this drowns the dram completely and wasn’t that enjoyable with the same amount added as the previous two.
Buy what you can from Glen Scotia! They seem available across many speciality retailers in the U.K., and at an affordable price. I really enjoyed my time with the three of these pours and – to my surprise – my favourite was the 12 Year Old Seasonal Release, not the peated 14 Year Old Tawny Port Finish!
You can have a bit of fun at home, as well, with a tasting. Pour yourself a flight of various whiskies at once. Tasting them on their own, we can all do quite well to pick out various (subjective) notes. But, in comparison, you may pick out something that you’ve never discovered before.
Individually, each of these expressions were delightful and very enjoyable. Together, I had a memorable time tasting them.
Bottle photos courtesy of The Whisky Exchange. Lead image is author’s own.