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Blair Athol 12 Year Old Flora and Fauna

When reviewing Scotch whisky, I often try to limit external influences that can impact on a score. The great advantage of such an approach is consistency. The downside perhaps is that reviews can become a bit clinical and, from a writer’s perspective, a little boring.

I am also aware international readers will very much enjoy the storytelling and context that marketing material brings to far-off distilleries and their regions, whilst us dour Scots deride it as nonsense. Many of you will have visited Scotland and may well have fallen for her charms and her whisky at the time. Fortunately, Taylor (in his capacity as Malt editor) is relatively tolerant of my whims of fancy. Previous deviations from the standard format have included my article about aroma which remains relevant to this article. Today, I invite you to join me on a walk with a dram.

It’s Sunday, mid-February, I’ve recently heard that otters have been spotted on the North Esk near my home. I have an afternoon free and select the Blair Athol 12 year old Flora and Fauna to accompany our walk. It’s most fitting, as the bottle sports an illustration of an otter inspired by a stream near the distillery in Blair Athol. For the purposes of the article, I take the bottle and a Glencairn glass, but would usually select a hipflask for such adventures.

The headlands of the North Esk are high in the Cairngorm Mountains at the top of Glen Esk, behind the Angus Braes on the Northeast coast south of Aberdeen. Today the hills in the distance are speckled by melting snow. The weather is typical for the East Coast at this time of year: dry, bright with a biting cold wind. We descend the embankment down to the river and cross a ploughed field of rich, deep mahogany.

At the riverbank, the river level is a good 2 feet higher than last week. The North Esk is renowned for salmon and trout but never gained the same fame as rivers such as the Tweed or Tay. It’s a spate river given to significant fluctuations in water level, with good finishing when the water is up. Three fishermen are waist-deep in the frigid waters about 300 yards downstream, so we turn west and head up stream hoping to spot an elusive otter.

As short distance along the river we encounter a broken weir and sluice gate, relics of the heavily industrialised history of the lower reaches of the river. Huge mills stood, hydraulically powered, weaving jute (and more recently polypropylene) until about 50 years ago. I take the chance to capture a worthy photograph and to enjoy the first sample of the Blair Athol; juicy fresh apples that pass briefly. Perhaps a little simple?

After cutting up an embankment to our left, away from the mill, a taste of bitter orange zest develops on the palate. A little further upstream we cross the old Marykirk bridge, a longstanding crossing point of the Esk. A main road leads southeast towards the coast: Hillside, and then Montrose. The old road led toward the once prosperous market town. Crossing the bridge from south bank to north bank, a real toffee note develops that encourages a further pour to freshen the mouth.

A little further along the north bank, closer to Marykirk village, passing a few nodding acquaintances, I find a strand line from recent high water which seems to be a good place for further photography and another small sample.

Here, despite the chilling effect of the wind, more flavour develops from this small pour. More apple, apple peelings, a deeper baked apple note. Then, slightly sour apple and homemade digestive biscuits. Swallowing gives a very smooth and gentle, but welcome warming sensation.

We continue upsteam towards the solid squat railway viaduct that carries the East Coast mainline tracks north through Laurencekirk and Stonehaven, onwards to Aberdeen. We walk slowly along the grass verge to avoid the crunch of pebbles that make up the farm track. My eyes are constantly scanning the water for an unusual movement, and constantly listening out for an unexpected splash. The occasional gust of wind grab my shoulders and thrust me forward. Closer to the water here it’s turbulent flow bubbles, glugs along the main channel. The wind slaps waves against angular rocks along the bank. The sun briefly breaks through the clouds, and the apricity is most welcome.

Walking towards the viaduct, Glencairn in hand, we startle a hefty buzzard from its perch. It spreads heavy brown and speckled cream wings and glides across the river and over a ploughed field. A single droplet of salty snot has snuck down my moustache and seasons the whisky with a welcome balance.

Directly upstream of the viaduct we reach the river rapid that upends so many teams in the annual village raft race. The water roars between one of the spans of the bridge. I pause to take in the view, hearing the full slap of a wave against the bank. The wind is catching the peaks of waves in the river, causing them to break like beach surf. A brace of Mallard ducks skim into the water. Suddenly an exotic white egret lifts from a small tributary stream and then defies all attempts at getting an evidential photograph.

The East Coast mainline scheduled service crosses the viaduct with a roar sufficient to drown out the wind. The descending sun is an indication to return downstream. On the return, leg a murder of crows chatters in the treetops. After crossing the old Marykirk bridge again to the southern bank, powerful coal smoke from a nearby chimney heralds the evening.

We are entering the golden hour. Another small warming dram is called for whilst I study the river for otters. Flavours of apple, some apricot jam, light toffee and a little vanilla. Cold in the mouth initially holding onto it to before swallowing helps it warm up, and me, giving more flavour development. Slightly buttery and a little tart; perhaps pear frangipane tart. Slightly nutty.

As we continue back downstream, no indication of otters yet. Back over the old mill sluice, and around a meander with a gravely beach on my inner bend and a steep cliff on the northern side. A Roe Deer stag skirts a wire fence above the river cliff and below a grey heron braces, shoulders hunched, neck tucked in, resisting the urge to take flight.

After another 10 minutes’ walk, I’m getting to know this Blair Athol. It delivers more floral notes now with Angelica, saffron. We’ve reached the point we began, but the fishermen have moved from below the weir, so we continue a little further downstream. Around the bend and after a short climb, the river can be seen stretching out below us meandering towards the estuary nearby. Across on the North bank a fox steals into a thicket of gorse bushes and a pheasant shrieks out a panicked throaty alarm that is echoed by others right down the valley. Within the empty Glencairn, a dusty vanilla remains. The wind ever-present booms from the nearby woodland forewarning a bitterly cold night ahead.

I pause, exposed, on the top of the hill for a little longer than is wise. I pull the cork with a satisfying thunk, but immediately the wind whistles across the open aperture. Here, a small dram, for warmth only. This place, a short walk from home, became a bit of a refuge during prolonged lockdowns; a great place to stop and contemplate the passing seasons, even a pitch-dark location for star gazing. Plus, a sufficient gradient for snowy tobogganing. A wood pigeon calls out in undulating coos, and a tawny owl hoots out reminding me of the impending sunset. We return along the narrow bank for one last look at the weir where I hoped to spot an otter.

In the fading light, the sky began to blush peaches, oranges and yellow; the river continued to bubble and boil, the crows chattered as they prepared to roost and finally an otter grabbed a final few smolts before heading to it’s holt for the night. I managed to snatch a few grainy photographs worthy of any Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster sighting but clear enough too. The otter hunted for about ten minutes, porpoising out of the water and crunching up its catch mid-swim before it arched it’s back, floating, tail and head out of the water, letting the current take it down stream and off into the distance.

As I ascended back up the hill away from the river, I reflected on my doubly successful trip: both getting to know this Blair Athol, and spotting an illusive and evocative creature, which even 20 years ago would have been extremely rare. The Flora and Fauna whisky is doing exactly what it was designed to do: evoke the place around the distillery. Creatures featured in the collection range from porpoise to badgers, capercaillie to goldcrest, oyster catchers and pied wagtails.

The range is universally bottled at 43%, and is likely to be chill-filtered and coloured. It is often discounted to between £40 to £50. Many of the early releases are from distilleries no-longer available, and as such have become quite collectable. Certainly, it has helped the range become iconic.

As for the likelihood of spotting otters around the Blair Athol distillery? Well, as good as anywhere. Having been lost for much of the country between the 1950s and 1970s, there are now an estimated 8,000 otters in Scotland since being designated as a protected species. About half of Scotland’s otters are costal dwellers, and as such the very best otter spotting is around the coasts rather than inland such as Blair Athol. Distilleries such as Talisker, Scapa, or those on Islay perhaps best?

As for the whisky: I’ve combined my “outdoor” tasting notes with some more conventionally acquired notes in the comfort and warmth of home.

Blair Athol 12 Year Old Flora and Fauna – Review

43% ABV. £66 (price paid locally; cheaper online)

Colour: Deep rust.

On the nose: Apple, toffee and vanilla, Angelica, saffron, baked apples, peaches, lily, buttery toast, brandy-soaked raisins.

In the mouth: Juicy fresh apples, bitter orange zest, toffee, apple peelings, a deeper stewed apple note. Then slightly sour apple and homemade digestive biscuits. Butterscotch, marzipan. Very smooth and gentle, but welcome warming sensation. More apple, some apricot jam, this light toffee and a little vanilla custard. Pear frangipane tart dressed with toasted flaked almond. Slightly floral. Dusty vanilla.

Conclusions:

Very smooth and approachable; I’d doubt that many would fail to find this whisky palatable. But, no matter the score for the whisky, linking the experience of spotting otters to the whisky I was enjoying at the time embeds in me a memory that will always elevate future encounters with the whisky beyond the score that follows. For the seasoned whisky fan, the presentation is lacking; the chill-filtration and colouring, the low ABV, restrains the flavour and is all rather predictable. The whisky itself fails to evoke the unpredictable natural turbulent character of the river and its flora and fauna. This whisky is laminar flow; intriguing but not exciting, like watching animals in the zoo.

Score: 5/10

CategoriesSingle Malt
Graham

Graham is at the consumer end of the whisky world; constantly seeking out a bargains and generally very cautious with his limited budget. An occasional visitor to distilleries and a member of the odd whisky club. He does not collect whiskies but has a few nice ones put away for some future special occasion. He enjoys discussions with the wider whisky community and may resemble the ‘average’ Malt reader.

  1. Jigs says:

    Never did I expect that I’d have a sensorial perception of snot from what I was reading! Kidding aside, Graham, this is a fantastic piece. I especially liked the way the flavors of the dram took a walk with you, too.

    1. Graham says:

      thanks Jigs, it was an interesting day and a challenge to set out of the usual review style. Sorry about the drips. 🙂

  2. Greg B. says:

    Just a lovely piece to read, Graham. It told me everything I wanted to learn about the whisky, woven into a story that painted a wonderful picture in my mind – along with actual pictures that illustrated the words well. Thank you, it was much appreciated. If Blair Athol 12 ever reaches my local shop I will surely try a bottle.

    1. Graham says:

      Thanks for taking the time to leave some positive feedback. I enjoyed being a bit more creative here so I’m please it works.

      The Blair Athol 12 is certainly worth exploring.

      Cheers,

      Graham

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