When I interviewed the Instagram influencers in a recent article, I asked them if they had changed their whisky buying practices in light of their Instagram profile. Other than the influencer who doesn’t need to buy whisky anymore, only one mentioned that they had changed buying habits a bit.
I rather think the other two might not have noticed the shift. Why do I think that? Well, since writing a little more frequently for Malt I find my habits changing slightly. I am more often purchasing something that I’d like to write about and hope is tasty. Many of the purchases I make just for enjoyment don’t perhaps have an interesting enough story to excite me into penning a preamble.
Take the case of Cadenhead’s Original Collection, launched as a replacement for the Small Batch Cask Strength edition to much derision from the whisky world at the time. The previous Small Batch collection offered similar whiskies at similar prices, but the replacement offering have been watered down to 46%. Many complained bitterly; certainly I raised a brow. For me, the Small Batch collection was well priced and allowed me to find my personal sweet spot of alcohol levels on any given day with the prudent addition of my own water. After all, you can add water but you can’t take it out.
As much as the whisky community complained about the range there was clear evidence that Cadenhead’s felt it just did not sell well. At the time of writing there are still 24 bottles in the Cadenheads Online Shop from Craigellachie to Cameronbridge, Glenrothes to Glentauchers, Tomatin to Tullibardine, all of which appear to be still at the original RRP. I particularly rated the Tomatin, yet it has hung around.
During the extended restrictions of COVID, my purchasing pivoted between picking up bottles from Cadenhead’s Edinburgh shop (whose lovely staff would store them until I could visit the shop), to Thompson Bros, who equally would store bottles until I could economically get them delivered six at a time. There were some other instances which perhaps caused me to look elsewhere. A few poor releases such as the heavy-handed finish of a Tomatin in the online tasting week of 2021 created a general sense that Cadenhead’s good stocks were depleted, and the remaining stocks were beginning to be jazzed up with strange finishes.
There seemed a lack of direction and leadership in the messages that were coming out of Campbeltown. For example: announcements on whiskies to be packaged in a new non-recyclable tube, followed by a full U-turn in the name of sustainability. There’s also the decision (with Glengyle only operating for two weeks of the year) to build a completely new distillery instead of increasing capacity at Glengyle first. Finally, there was the painfully public chaos of the London store, about which too much dirty laundry has already been aired. I admit to being a little baffled.
Cadenhead’s in my experience has always been quite traditional, from the homely and austerely Presbyterian appearance of the Edinburgh store, to the classic bottle shapes and labels used for the Authentic Collection. Any attempts to mix things up, such as interesting bottle shapes for the malternatives they bottle, seem to have a 90s-dad-in-trainers sort of vibe.
Perhaps also traditional is the insistence on appending -Glenlivet to distilleries in the glen, long after the practice was dropped by everyone else. The history of the brand also contributes, having been established in Aberdeen in 1842 and run independently until it was acquired by J&A Mitchell & Co, the family firm behind Springbank, in 1969. One of the unusual aspects of Cadenhead’s business is the franchising of shops around the UK and Europe that helps makes it one of the better-known bottlers; shops are located in Campbeltown, Edinburgh, London, Baden, Cologne, Milan, Berlin, Odense, and Vienna.
My changing purchasing habits have not been without a significant sense of guilt; an acknowledgement that I am no longer supporting a great whisky shop such as their store in Edinburgh, and a feeling that Mitchells (who own Cadenhead’s, Springbank, and the Glengyle distillery) are the kind of organisation you really want to root for.
For a start: the distilleries and Cadenhead’s are part of a charitable trust; beneficiaries include the people of Campbeltown. In creating the trust, the Mitchells have secured the future of the distilleries and the independent bottler, maintaining a single entity and providing a bright future for the whole Campbeltown community. Then of course there are the employees, too, all of whom I have found to be superbly helpful. Perhaps customers’ pains around business changes should be more thoughtfully borne.
When I received an email highlighting that tasting packs were available for a recent outturn of the Original Collection, I decided to give Cadenhead’s another chance. As I alluded to at the beginning: this choice was driven not by a particular personal interest in any of the bottles in the outturn but because I saw an opportunity to write this article, changing purchasing behaviours much like the Instagram influencers.
Had it not been for Malt, I’d have given the lower strength range a swerve. Despite my own disappointment at the move away from cask or batch strength products in other circumstances, the presentation would be well received: 46% ABV, natural colour and non-chill filtered. There are 17 different releases available on the Cadenhead’s website; five of the bottles reviewed below remain available at the time of drafting, with only and Ardmore having sold out. These may well be available at the Cadenhead’s retail stores. Are they worth seeking out?
Glen Elgin-Glenlivet Aged 12 Years
Bourbon casks. 46% ABV. £49.
Colour: Reposado tequila.
On the nose: Sweet malty raw spirit, green apple, pear, vanilla caster sugar, tinned peaches in syrup, a bit gentle.
In the mouth: Light fruity arrival, pear juice, plum flesh, firm peach, Juicy Fruit Gum, dry baking spices the fruit continues through the finish which brings more spirity pepper.
I have been enjoying Glen Elgin recently and this feels like it had the potential to be a real fruit bomb, but is a little restrained by ABV.
Heaven Hill Aged 12 Years – Review
American oak barrels. 46% ABV. £77.
Colour: Pale gold
On the nose: Dry dusty wood spices, a hint of more exotic spices, varnish, wood glue, corn bread, green olive tarragon, daffodil flowers.
In the mouth: Industrial corn spirit, creamed sweetcorn, sweet-refined sugar, hard candy, candy “cigarettes,” vanilla and wood spices.
This is quite disappointing as I was expecting a lot more. I recently reviewed a Whisky Broker Heaven Hill, which I particularly enjoyed and which prompted me to buy a bottle of Mellow Corn for £30. This is definitely tasting more at the Mellow Corn end of the spectrum, but with a price almost twice the Whisky Broker cask, which was also at cask strength.
Inchgower Aged 12 Years – Review
Bourbon, madeira, and sherry casks. 46% ABV. £55.
On the nose: Toasted sugar, baked sweet pastry, basic seasoned sherry casks, boiled sugar, candy-floss, Terry’s chocolate orange, cask spices.
In the mouth: Very thin, underpowered seasoned sherry cask, toasted sugar, madeira giving sponge cake crusts smothered in apricot jam, gentle oak spices, with time the Inchgower character becomes more prominent but it’s not enough to stop this being underwhelming.
In my experience I’ve had a lot of lovely Inchgowers, but none that have blown me away. This is the first that I’ve felt underperformed, and that is largely due to the seasoned sherry cask notes that I have a particular issue with. It’s fairly priced, and others may find this more palatable so:
A Speyside Aged 13 Years – Review
50% first fill sherry and 50% refill oloroso sherry casks. 46% ABV. £65.
On the nose: Complex sherry, Christmas cake fruit mix, malty, flapjack, blood orange, baking spices, a fresh brightness.
In the mouth: Light, smooth, coherent, deep sweetness, raisin sweetness, slightly nutty, caramel with a pinch of salt, gentle spices on the finish which also delivers some cask char and toasted sugar.
This is a tasty sherry bomb, but it has stiff competition from sherry blends at a fraction of the price such as Old Perth and Berry Brothers & Rudd Sherry Blend.
Ardmore Aged 11 Years – Review
Pinot noir finish since 2020. 46% ABV. £54.
Colour: Rich gold.
On the nose: Toasted brown sugar Brulé, dry oaky tannins, baked red fruits, plum jam, then smoky peat, and cask char.
In the mouth: Complex dark sugars yield to red fruits building to a rich smoky peat that fills the mouth, dry tannins, some vegetal notes of damp undergrowth, spicy peat towards the finish with reasonable body and length.
Contemporaneous notes at the time record “best of the bunch so far,” but still not enough to raise this above “good.”
Caol Ila Aged 10 Years – Review
First fill bourbon casks. 46% ABV. £45.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Classic Caol Ila: coastal, mineral notes, walking on a pebble beach, smoky peat, fresh malty spirit, citrus rind, loads of vanilla and fresh mint.
In the mouth: Sweet creamy, bright and lovely spicy peat smoke, plenty of body and flavour that rolls around the mouth. The finish is rich smoky and spicy.
This nudges the Ardmore to take the podium as it delivers a lot considering the bottling strength. It’s fairly priced in a market where Caol Ila is creeping up, but it still falls short of what I would have most likely scored if it was cask strength.
These were not the reviews I wanted to finish the article on; I was hoping for something altogether more positive with the Originals range. I’m sure these whiskies compare favourably to other independents’ entry level ranges, such as Douglas Laing’s Provenance range with the same bottling strength or Gordon and MacPhail’s Discovery range at a slightly lower 43%. I can’t see the business decision to take on these big brands with their striking colour coding or bold typographical presentations. From the samples here, the Cadenhead’s range sadly lacks both shelf appeal and overall flavour.
Lead image courtesy of The Whisky Shop. Other images courtesy of Cadenheads.