Does size matter?
A few years ago, the discourse started around whisky bottle sizes related to 50cl (500ml) bottles of whisky being retailed at close to the same price as 70cl (700ml) bottles. Then we had the whisky miniatures at 5cl (50ml) which have had a cult following for years, with many collectors investing a fortune in huge collections often just to sit back and watch them slowly evaporate before their eyes. Occasional half bottle releases have impressed me including both Whisky Meets Sherry, which I often evangelise about, and Contrasts – both from Tomatin – which delivered half bottle sets for close to single bottle prices. However, these type of releases are few and far between.
Over the last few years whisky prices have continued to skyrocket (investors, flippers, etc.) Fortunately we’ve seen whisky clubs founded and others growing. Bottle sharing, sample swaps, and online tastings have become standard. These two separate factors have prompted a change in behaviour. Many more whisky enthusiasts are turning to whisky auctions to source miniatures. Superb 1960s whisky can be picked up for £20 to £30 for 5cl, much lower than the price of buying a 2.5cl measure in a quality whisky bar, and significantly better value than trying to win a full bottle at auction.
The other format that is becoming more popular is the 20cl bottle. This year I’ve actually bought five bottles of this size; prior to this I have only bought one or two a year, such as the Eden Mill hipflask series. Two of this year’s purchases were the Springbank Society releases, and two were private bottlings of Springbank for my whisky club. These bottles were not cheap, but they allow me to access whisky at a price at which I would not have considered a full bottle. The other 20cl bottle was an old release of Tomatin 1987 by Càrn Mòr, which was very cheap at auction, perhaps because the 20cl format is less popular with investors and collectors.
My favourite size of whisky samples would probably be 10cl, as you get two standard measures for sampling and review writing, plus a large measure just to enjoy out of the same bottle. However, the 5cl sample size popularised by whisky miniatures is by far the most frequently seen sharing measure. I’m very grateful to all those whisky enthusiasts who go to the trouble of splitting bottles and sharing these, and applaud those who continue to offer this at cost price rather than for profit.
A new development – the subject of this article – is whisky shops selling 5cl samples. I recently came across this arrangement in Dunkeld, at the Dunkeld Whisky Box. Dunkeld itself is a charming town of miniature proportions just off the A9 road that leads from central Scotland to Speyside and the Highlands. Dunkeld is often overlooked by the tour bus companies who plough on towards Pitlochry for the customary comfort break. However, it is thoroughly recommended for private travellers, as it is does not suffer quite the same commercialisation as the main honeypot towns on the route.
Dunkeld sports a slew of quality restaurants; I recently had some incredible leek and wild garlic soup as part of my meal at the Taybank Hotel, which also has a beer garden that opens onto the river Tay itself. Dunkeld also offers tapas, delicatessens, a traditional chippy for sustenance. Nearby there the fantastic Hermitage woodland walks; the Land Rover Experience allows you to drive the latest luxury 4x4s in the environment they were intended for.
Let’s turn back to the aptly named Whisky Box, a dinky but thoughtfully designed shop just of the main street. The owners, former whisky tour guides, really know their whisky. Focussing on independent bottlings, you won’t see many core range official bottles on their shelves. Certainly, it’s a shop for browsing as, despite having a website many treats are retained for store-only customers. I was served by the charming and knowledgeable Alan, who, sensing my child was not keen for hanging about as I shopped, produced a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer bar for him, buying me another 10 minutes of whisky browsing and chatting.
In truth, I was not in the market for new whisky. We’ve all been in the situation where whisky budgets are low within days of the new month; with upcoming holidays, prudence is required. What Dunkeld whisky box offered me was an opportunity to buy a sample or two to take away. There was a chalkboard of options, both peated and unpeated, at a variety of price points. Alan duly bottled up the duo I review below and I promptly left, chocolate covered child in tow, with my whisky purchasing itch scratched and the holiday budget largely intact. Win-win. Now, I hasten to add that the whisky scores below are not a reflection on the store, but may be a reflection on the samples I selected.
I chose two samples from the Càrn Mòr Strictly Limited range. This is the entry level single malts range from Morrison Distillers that went through a small rebrand in 2019 and a full overhaul in 2020, with heavy new custom glass bottles and classy modern labels. It has been a wise move by Morrisons as whisky enthusiasts have taken a renewed interest in the range.
On some occasions I have been fortunate to buy into an entire outturn of bottle splits. The Strictly Limited range has performed strongly since the rebrand but, prior to that, it was much more hit and miss. The hits often came from unexpected places, with the misses often the most highly anticipated. I recall a fantastic young 5 year old Fettercairn which was superbly buttery and custardy, and rumoured to have been finished in a sweet wine cask despite being labelled as a bourbon hogshead. Peter was less favourable about a 10 year old bottling of Fettercairn. Adam scored a Ruadh Mhor highly. Mark also encountered a cask finish labelled as a bourbon from Dufftown. I have not heard of any of the mislabelling creeping into the facelifted range.
The samples I selected from Dunkeld Whisky box were a 13 year old Longmorn, a distillery whose reputation is growing amongst enthusiasts for its fruity Speyside style. I also picked a Ruadh Mhor, which is a peated Glenturret. This a distillery that has undergone a significant premiumisation, but appears to be more famous for the Michelin-starred distillery restaurant than the quality of the spirit. These both seemed like perfect drams to sample rather than commit to buying a full bottle, though both were reasonably priced.
Càrn Mòr Strictly Limited Longmorn 13 Years Old – Review
First fill Bourbon Barrels. 47.5% ABV. £61.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Light aromatic white fruit, boiled sweets sherbet lemons, estery, pear drops, vanilla, confectioners’ sugar.
In the mouth: Sherbet lemons, vanilla caster sugar, aromatic white fruit, oaky baking spices, still a little bit spirity and malty, the finish lingers for a long time which saves the overall experience.
Just a little bit uninspiring for the price these days. This kind of bottle a few years ago in the pre-facelift range would probably have been about £40 to £45.
Càrn Mòr Strictly Limited Ruadh Mhor 11 Years Old (Glenturret)
Refill sherry casks. 47.5% ABV. £63.
On the nose: Charred cask and smoky peat, slightly medicinal, some burnt sugar, creamy, a little flamed lemon peel, sweet. Not too much sherry. Some TCP.
In the mouth: Immediately like the nose, the smoke is oily and acrid, burnt tyres and somewhat vegetal, then quite spicy, with an odd smoky fruit finish that is quite short.
Rejuvenated casks I’d guess, a bit of a toast and char. The peat is a bit too forward almost Islay-like in the medicinal twang. Not a whisky I particularly enjoyed and poor Morrison distillers have 2,243 bottles to shift.
Bottle photos courtesy of Dunkeld Whisky Shop.