Recently, I undertook a little inventory of my whisky collection.
I am not a Whisky Crazy Person™ who allows his collection to spill over into hundreds of bottles and multiple cabinets. If it won’t fit into my existing liquor cabinet, I won’t buy it until I have room. Bottle in, bottle out, as it were. Plus, I need to share that space with my wife, so things get a little tight.
This discipline is handy for the credit card and a sense of some control over my alcohol consumption. The inventory did reveal one interesting finding: a sharp turn away from single malts towards blends. No Chivas, Johnnie Walker, or Famous Grouse here; the blends I seem to be buying are from indie bottlers with either a generous age statement at reasonable prices (compared to similarly aged single malts), or some intriguing, unique component that compels me to buy.
My turn away from single malts is by no means comprehensive – there’s still a fair swag of Signatory Vintage single malt bottlings in the cabinet – and nor has it been a conscious process. At this age I like what I like and am increasingly drifting towards it.
I am referring to options such as North Star’s Mach, Vega and Spica ranges, Adelphi’s Private Stock Blended Scotch Whisky, Cadenheads 7 Stars Blended Scotch Whisky, Signatory Vintage’s Hogshead Blended Malt or Claxton’s 19 year old Great Road West from their Exploration Range.
Some of these bottlings are ongoing; some are limited editions not to be repeated. What strikes me regarding these releases is that the indie bottler does not need to release them unless they are sure they are good. There is no ongoing demand that must be satisfied. The public will only know about them when they are up to scratch and ready to be released.
With the sheer volume of stock some of these indie bottlers have sitting around there must be some joy in playing around with different components to create a satisfying blend.
Founded in 2012, Lady of the Glen are a relatively new – though now well established – independent bottler. They were recently recognised as the independent bottler of the year for 2022 at the Icons of Whisky Awards presented by Whisky Magazine.
This year, they released their first blends, under the somewhat confusing moniker “St Bridget’s Kirk.” I asked Gregor Hannah, the founder of Lady of the Glen and Hannah Whisky Merchants, about these releases.
Malt: Lady of the Glen is a well-established brand. Why then are these bottles labelled under the name St Bridget’s Kirk? Can you explain where the name comes from?
Gregor Hannah: Thank you for compliments regarding Lady of the Glen. Lady of the Glen and the business are 10 years old now and as a brand Lady of the Glen has focussed on single cask releases, so releasing blends under that brand would probably confuse it. St Bridget’s Kirk is the name of a local landmark in Dalgety Bay where our bottling hall is based, and this is where we bottle all our releases by hand with just our five-person team!
Malt: Can you reveal the component malts in the two bottling in any further detail than what is on the labels? It seems batch 1 is Caol Ila and something else?
Gregor Hannah: Transparency and authenticity are very important to me so on the labels for Lady of the Glen I note as much information as possible from distillation dates, what the original distillate would taste like, what the tasting notes of the release are now, and even the specific site of the barrique or ex-sherry cask where possible. I have tried to present as much information on the St Bridget’s Kirk label as possible but unfortunately there are limits and sometimes you buy casks and you don’t know where the contents were distilled, so you can’t always write them down. Where I can I do note down the components on the label, but I don’t note down the components if I’m not 100% sure, or if I’m not allowed, as is the case with certain distillery brands.
Malt: How did Lady of the Glen come to the decision to release its first blends?
Gregor Hannah: As I mentioned in a previous answer, the business is over 10 years old and over the last 5 years in particular the portfolio of casks has grown. Within this portfolio there is a broad range of casks and all of them are destined for Lady of the Glen and our brands but, as the business has grown, I’ve also acquired casks that have been less than adequately full, or I have conducted re-rackings with 250 litre HHDs into 180 litre Barriques, and the result is leftover spirit that is probably too young or immature for release, so it’s been put together with other components I have.
The result is a separate portfolio of blended malt casks that has grown over the years. In addition, as a small business I’ve bought casks direct from bodegas and sometimes you have more arrive than you know what to do with, so I’ve re-racked the blend components into these first fill casks. Also, when I have purchased a parcel of casks, sometimes you get offered casks that are blended and it’s just part of a deal, so I had been sat on some of that for a while too.
For those reasons St Bridget’s Kirk was a route to market for the blend stocks. Keeping in mind St Bridget’s Kirk is really small batch, so in context we release about seven casks per outrun for Lady of the Glen and we do four outruns a year, but St Bridget’s Kirk is always just one cask’s worth, so at most St Bridget’s Kirk will be a butt – so about 500 bottles – but the recent releases have been smaller because we weren’t sure how the market would respond.
Malt: These aren’t bottled at cask strength. Were the ABVs determined for the best flavour profile and to increase the outturn?
Gregor Hannah: No, St Bridget’s Kirk is not cask strength and that’s because it’s a lot more of a reflection of our operation. Historically as independent single cask bottlers, we just bottled at cask strength but now with blends we can exert a bit more control over the finished product and, as the blend components were put together by us ,it’s a lot more of a designed product whereas independent single cask bottling, I would say, is a lot more like you’re relying on nature or time to design the spirit for you, although you can guide it with re-rackings and bottle it when you feel it’s right.
Malt: What can we expect from the next bottles in this series?
Gregor Hannah: St Bridget’s Kirk should be getting released in line with the Lady of the Glen outturns, so every quarter. The next St Bridget’s kirk will be bottled shortly after the 20th of August and it will be a peated version of the St Bridget’s Kirk batch #2, because we split the butt that made up Batch #2. Unfortunately, it will mean that Batch #3 will lose a bit of its age as we are using a younger Islay component, but we are excited by the results and are hopeful the market will respond as favourably as it has for Batches #1 and #2.
My sincere thanks to Gregor for taking the time to respond to my queries. To clarify then: Hannah Whisky Merchants will release single casks under the Lady of the Glen brand and blends under St Bridget’s Kirk. I would’ve thought that leaning into the well-regarded Lady of the Glen brand was possible for the blends, but if it sells out so quickly, does it matter?
Although I could not find any availability through UK outlets, Australian readers can head to Nicks where batch one is still available for $110 and batch two is selling for $150. A small batch 20 year old blended malt for $150? That is some serious value for money.
St Bridget’s Kirk Blended Malt Batch One – Review
6 years old. Bottled 11 January 2022. 48.5% ABV. Components are 1 x 2015 Caol Ila sherry hogshead, 1 x 2013 Caol Ila refill hogshead, and 1 x 2009 Unnamed Islay refill barrel.
Colour: Deep gold in a shady place.
On the nose: The sherry influence here is pronounced. Stewed rhubarb, musk sticks, oily leather, and copper coins. Slightly waxy with raisins, and red grapes, other stewed red fruits. I feel the restrained ABV allows this to open up on the nose satisfyingly. Pleasingly there’s no hint of sulphur. I also get dark honey and cinnamon. Later on in the session, some chopped limes.
In the mouth: Surprisingly sweet notes, this isn’t heavy at all. More honey, caramelised sugar and warm mashed strawberries. Some caramel and I think mascarpone. Then apricots, dates and sticky toffee.
This is remarkably drinkable and smooth around the edges, as you’d expect from a clever blend. Yes, I feel the youth is evident on the back palate and finish, but in the meantime there’s plenty of fun to be had. Even considering Malt’s demanding scoring system, I’m leaning towards a generous rating.
St Bridget’s Kirk Blended Malt Batch Two – Review
20 years old. Bottled 21 March 2022. 45.1% ABV. Components are 3 x unpeated malts from Speyside, Highland and Islay joined in an Oloroso butt. 281 bottles.
Colour: Deep gold in twilight.
On the nose: well, I can see what an extra 15 years of aging can get you. This is certainly stuffier, more austere. The first scent I extract is actually vanilla, then pencil shavings, hair styling wax, dried and pressed flowers and old volumes of leatherbound novels on a shelf. Leathery, old beef jerky. As it goes on more classic sherry notes unveil and there’s toffee and caramel, after dinner mints.
In the mouth: Dark chocolate, and the smoky haze on a freezing cold evening in a Scottish village. I wonder what the malts in this blend may have lost and gained over the years in the cask. Greasy skillets and old water-proof anoraks. There’s faint incense and potpourri, and fruit Skittles? Languorous polished oak furniture in a stately drawing room.
Just as good as Batch One, but very different in style. This ticks boxes that a single malt won’t; it seems a little on edge as if the components have been taken as far as they could before reaching a tipping point. Who cares – enjoy it now, if you have one of the other 280 bottles. As Gregor noted above, there’ll be a peated version of this for Batch 3 – one to look out for.
St Bridget’s Kirk Blended Malt Batch One and Two Mark P. Home Blend
One of the benefits of buying my own bottles to review for Malt is that I’m not restricted to a sample provided by the bottler; I have a full 700ml to enjoy. Therefore, I blended 25mls from the neck pour of each bottle for a little home experimentation.
I won’t provide a score, but overall thoughts. On the palate, there’s barbeque crisps, smoky dukkha, garlic salt, and some fresh fruits that battles out of the blend, presumably from Batch One. Also glazed ham and dark bread. With the pressure off to produce a score, I relax and enjoyed this as much as either Batch individually.
It appears we have another shark in the ocean. These blends are very good indeed, and I trust Gregor and his team to continue to refine their blending skills and provide solid value for money. Ultimately, the prices should stay appealing if indeed Hannah and co. are using the opportunity to finish up butt ends or not-quite-there single casks in the blends.
Unless there are already in your collection, you probably won’t get an opportunity to try Batches 1 and 2 now, unless an intrepid Australian reader jumps on the chance via Nicks. Batch 3 is almost upon us, though, and Gregor has assured us St Bridget’s Kirk is around for the long haul. I’m keen to continue to follow the evolution of these releases.
The rebirth of the blends is a fascinating topic. Indie bottlers trying to ‘dump’ poor casks and cask ends onto the market could be really bad for the blend. But as your review shows they know a thing or two about flavour and the blends can be great. I hope a few of the recent Thompson Bros blends make it down your way for you to try too. These are great value.
Pricing is a big issue for me though this St Bridget’s Kirk is retailing about £60 here in the UK along with other ‘Premium’ blends such as Lum Reek 12 £50 , Apogee by Bimber £50, the entire Remarkable Malts core range around £43, Thompson Bros blends lower at £35.
I think it’s going to be a hard sell to persuade me to purchase these ‘premium’ blends £20 more than those I already enjoy. Despite a strong score here.
Stay tuned for more coverage of indie bottler blends next week!
I think the pricing is justified here – a small out turn from 3 casks and at least one hefty age statement. Could you buy something 80% as good for about half the price? Sure, and there’s the rub.