Allow me to commence this review by discussing basketball. You’ll have to trust me: this is going somewhere.

In the NBA, future draft picks can be traded to acquire players onto your team. A future draft pick – let’s say the number five pick – always has more value than a player just drafted at the number five spot. Why is that?

Because a player drafted with the future number five pick could still be absolutely anything. That player could be the next Vince Carter crossed with Steph Curry with a sprinkling of Tracy McGrady. The recently drafted player is now a known quantity with defined, finite value: flaws to be dissected and strengths to be scrutinised. It is the appeal of the great unknown versus the knowable asset, with warts and all.

Bringing this back to whisky, and my affection for mystery whisky bottlings will hopefully prove apropos to my NBA analogy. You should know the bottlings I am referring to” releases dubbed “Secret Speyside,” or “Unnamed Islay,” perhaps “Mystery Highlands.”

Who doesn’t love a good mystery?

From Agatha Christie’s oeuvre, to how exactly Stonehenge was constructed, to how I got home from the pub the other night, to who let the dogs out, these are the questions that keep us awake at 3 AM.

In the case of the classic canine mystery from Baha Men, your guess is as good as mine. We can endlessly pore over the lyrics and move no closer to the truth. But do we love a good mystery whisky?

I buy these because usually they offer good value for money and because – to my way of thinking – it’s sometimes better not to know what’s in the bottle. That Secret Speyside? Might it be Macallan? The Unnamed Islay? Let’s go with Lagavulin. And the Mystery Highlands? You can’t tell me it’s not GlenDronach, because you don’t know.

Of course, any of those three results is unlikely; Macallan, Lagavulin and GlenDronach are not known for working hand in hand with independent bottlers. But if the contents of the bottles are just Benrinnes, Deanston, and Bunnahabhain, why not just put it on the bottle? I like to think that if the indie bottler isn’t telling us, it must be for a good reason: a distinguished distillery has blocked the use of their name.

My other off-the-beaten-path theory (that also keeps me awake at 3 AM) is that an indie bottler might be withholding distilleries’ names because they’d like us to think the bottles could hold Macallan rather than Benrinnes (no slight against Benrinnes, one of my favourite distilleries) so they can charge a slight premium.

Despite my best efforts to cut back my whisky expenditure, I was recently tempted to purchase three bottles with undisclosed provenance from the new independent bottler South Star Spirits.

“South Star?” you are asking?

“I think he means North Star,” you’ve probably concluded.

Fair enough, too, because the bottles look very similar to the classic North Star design. South Star is a new bottling venture between Iain Croucher (of North Star renown) and three “whisky enthusiast” mates to celebrate and help promote the establishment of the new Dál Riata Distillery in Campbeltown (Croucher also being a director of the new distillery).

I won’t linger on the story of Dál Riata Distillery; that’s an article for another day. South Star’s inaugural releases are an Islay 8 year old, a Speyside 10 year old, and a Highland 10 year old, all bottled at 48% ABV and all limited to 2,148 bottles (though the South Star Spirits website and various retailers claim 2,200 bottles are available, 2,148 is the number on the actual bottles).

I did perform some perfunctory research and could not locate, on any website the source distilleries for these releases… but given the association with North Star, known for a diverse line up of releases, I was privately excited that these could be something a little outside the box.

A few weeks after buying these bottles I received an email from a separate retailer telling me they’d been discounted. I clicked through out of curiosity to investigate the new prices and the Whisky List had somehow identified the source distilleries. If I am to believe that the Whisky List has good sources, the Islay is from Caol Ila, the Highland is Blair Athol, and the Speyside is Mannochmore.

I have no grudge against these three distilleries, but out went my fantasies of what could be in the bottles. Like those future NBA draft picks, the mystery had gone, and I was left with the reality.

Caol Ila, Blair Athol, and Mannochmore are hardly scarce in the indie world. If you desire indie expressions from these distilleries, you needn’t look too hard. Fingers crossed, then, that at least the liquid contents deliver the goods. All three of these releases were available for around $125 in Australia. or little under £50 in the UK. All are still widely available in both territories; try Tyndrum Whisky in the UK or The Whisky Company in Australia.

South Star 8 Year Old Islay – Review

Distilled in 2013 and bottled in 2021 at 48% ABV, with 2,148 bottles from 10 vatted hogsheads.

Colour: Apple juice.

On the nose: This one benefits from time in the glass, though which malt whisky doesn’t? At first, bursts of campfire smoke, sea spray and peaty marshland. Classic Islay tropes, if one dimensional. Then some sliced lime, brown sugar and hazelnut, revealing depth, though somewhat scant, worth exploring.

In the mouth: Again with the peat, a chalky minerality, smoked meats, ash and flint. Just a hints of dark chocolate and sardines, fried (perhaps burnt) onions, black olives, cigars, and the black cat aniseed lollies that my youngest daughter despises.

Conclusions:

At the Australian price of $125, I think this is just a little on the pricey side, though I wouldn’t deduct a point. I’d guess that the vatting has smoothed out any Caol Ila idiosyncrasies, and that South Star are perfectly OK with that. I think this offers an acceptable experience for the money. Happy to have tried it and this is worth your money, but you shouldn’t be too disappointed if you miss out.
Score: 5/10

South Star 10 Year Old Highland – Review

Distilled in 2011 and bottled in 2021 at 48% ABV, with 2,148 bottles from 10 vatted first fill hogsheads.

Colour: Pale gold

On the nose: The Yin to the Islay Yang. Wonderful, bright summery fruits – peaches, mango, rockmelon. Floral notes that are complimentary rather than cloying. Then honey, Crème Brûlée, caramel sauce and chopped up strawberries. This is richly evocative and inviting to taste.

In the mouth: Mango ice cream, almond slivers, shaved coconut, and whipped cream. If all this sounds too sweet, it isn’t too my palate, as it seems to be working in harmony rather than a jumbled cacophony. There is powdered Turkish delight, vanilla essence and a little melted butter and banana peel.

Conclusions:

A confession: though I was not excited to discover that this was from Blair Athol, I am a longtime fan of the distillery itself, and have visited twice. If you’ve ever had a bad Blair Athol, please leave a snarky comment below questioning my intelligence and credibility, but personally I have not. This is a standout dram and appears to be a clever vatting.

Score: 7/10

South Star 8 Year Old Speyside – Review

Distilled in 2011 and bottled in 2021 at 48% ABV, with 2,148 bottles from 10 vatted first fill hogsheads.

Colour: White wine.

On the nose: Bears a passing similarity to the Highland dram. Tropical fruits of the likes of papaya and melon, banana, peaches in syrup. Rhubarb and sticky buns, Earl Grey tea and crystallised chopped up fruits ready to go into a fruit cake. The hops of a fruity pale ale

In the mouth: A little grassy, a little mellow. More so than the other drams I wonder if a little more ABV might have helped this dram. Certainly not unpleasant, with bananas, jellybeans, blackcurrant juice; later I get some heather and cinnamon, the slight tang of blood orange and moist carrot cake.

Conclusions:

Releasing a regional series of bottlings must always come with the disclaimer that expectations of a certain style to represent each region are murky at best. Islay can produce wonderful un-peated drams, but when we crack open an “Unnamed Islay” we know it will be a peat blast to fulfill the expected status quo.

And what is the expected difference between a Speyside or Highland dram? Some Speyside distilleries label themselves as ‘Highland’ on the bottle as Speyside is technically a sub-region of the Highlands (Macallan included).

The irony of Blair Athol distillery is that it has long being classified as a Highland distillery but it is significantly further south than Speyside. Mannochmore in Speyside is a 100 mile drive north from the ‘Highland’ Blair Athol; while Blair Athol is a 200 mile drive from its true Highland counterpart, Wolfburn.

I believe an anonymous Speyside bottling will generally be chosen to fulfill the brief of being rich and fruity, probably sherried; with Highland, there can be no expected style other than the hope for a quality dram.

Score: 5/10

As a starter range from South Star Spirits, these three will certainly help get the word out about Dál Riata until their own spirits come online, and perhaps help pay some bills. Pound for pound, I’d venture that Douglas Laing’s Remarkable Regional Malt range is superior at this stage. Unlike the Remarkable Malt range, all going well we won’t still be drinking South Star Spirits in 10 years time; we’ll be enjoying a glass of Dál Riata instead.

South Star Spirits might have wanted to keep the distillery names off the bottles so they could substitute in other distilleries for future releases without any comment from the whisky community. In the meantime, in my own personal pursuit of mystery malts, I will try and follow the advice of Iris DeMent, and let the mystery be.

CategoriesSingle Malt

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