Every rule has its exceptions. As a rule, I don’t collect whisky. I have never understood the concept of collecting anything but do understand that many find it compelling. I particularly don’t understand people collecting perishable items like whisky, but appreciate it deteriorates slowly. Particularly, I can’t understand people who collect whisky and keep it in their house, in the central heating and direct light, because this speeds up the deterioration.
I do feel the exceptional compulsion to ‘collect’ when it comes to the bottles of Na Bràithrean, or at least, put them aside in ideal conditions for future drinking. The brand was set up by mates, Brendan Clark and Andrew Paxton, brothers from another mother so to speak. The concept is that they will take a single cask, usually a bourbon cask and put half into a finishing cask, saving the other half to be bottled at the same time. This unusual concept allows the “raw” unadulterated spirit to be tasted unfinished side by side with the finished bottle.
This concept is a real boon for whisky enthusiasts who often speculate about the quality of the spirit prior to finishing. For me the hook is that with Na Bràithrean unfinished whisky is labelled “Wee Brother” and the finished whisky “Big Brother.” As a father with two young lads, the opportunity to crack open these whiskies in the distant future and discuss our strengths and weaknesses, our successes, and failures, lubricated by a couple of drams is incredibly romantic too me.
That the bottles contain interesting, sometimes challenging, whisky and a handsome bottle design is a bonus. I have them put aside in the dark in cellar conditions so that they will still be at their best when opened. If either of my lads grow into as cantankerous a teenager as I was, then keeping the bottles at arm’s length will negate the chance that the whisky is gradually swapped out for cold tea or mixed with Red Bull at a house party!
I was nosey to learn more about the fledgling bottlers, so I got in touch with founder Brendan to find out more. As is the Malt way I’ve got my thoughts on the recent releases at the end of the interview. Nick and Bryan and Aberdeen Whisky Shop have been great at helping me secure these bottles and Nick gave me a sample of each recently released bottle from which I base my reviews. I’ve also been fortunate to have bought a few sets only to find out my wife has, too, allowing me to enjoy a whole bottle and get a good measure of the whole range. Although not reviewed here, the Glencadam Brothers deserve a particular commendation.
Malt: Brendan, you conceived of a company based on strong concept of brotherhood, but you guys are – much to my surprise – not actually brothers. How did the idea of using the wee brother big brother concept come about?
Na Bràithrean: We get the brothers thing a lot so we are used to it. Most people will say, “Awh you guys are the brothers?” and I suppose the answer is, yes, we’re Na Bràithrean… just not brothers! To be honest it is just an extension of sister cask idea, which is common for casks that are filled next to each other, e.g., cask number 1 and cask number 2 would be sister casks for their full maturation.
Because we knew by this point we would have multiple casks come from one single cask, the opportunity to have bottles that are brothers. So, we would say the concept was born first and the name followed. It is the perfect metaphor for our whisky: brothers come from a mother cask born with similarities but their surroundings, like the cask, shape them as individuals.
Malt: Cask finishing is a very common process used by most of the large distillery companies and most independent bottlers, but it has an undeservedly negative reputation. Can you explain why it’s a process you have built your business around?
Na Bràithrean: “Why” is easy; we wanted to stand out. As far as we know, we are the only independent bottler who releases two bottles from each cask and allows the drinker to see, smell and taste the effect of the wood and time on our whisky. As for the rest: we really just follow our nose and instinct. We always try the whisky and get some notes down, then just have fun. We explore what things we want to add to the whisky or even aspects we want to dampen, then we go select a cask we think might do that. Then we wait, taste regularly enough to watch the flavour develop, but not too much as to disturb it.
One of our bottlings we have just tried to recreate a whisky we had tasted before; it didn’t taste anything like it, but it was wonderful in its own way. We never bottle anything we wouldn’t drink ourselves and that’s been a sufficient quality check for us. Our choices really pay merit at tastings where brothers split the room; some love the Wee Brother the other half love the Big Brother. That’s what our whisky should do and just shows how personal taste is.
Malt: What should the discerning drinker be getting out of drinking these whiskies side by side? What are your whiskies saying to the drinker?
Na Bràithrean: We want to show the effects of time. Rarely do you get to try a finished whisky before the finish. I think a lot of whisky drinkers have a finished dram and (for good or bad) wondered what was this like before? However, this is not always the case; sometimes we finish both so we can show the effect of just the cask. For example, what does a PX do to a whisky vs an oloroso cask? Finishes that are common but often the complexities of vatting, time, and distillery cloud that comparison. With these ones we try reducing the variables and let the casks do the talking.
Malt: I’ve written many times about not collecting whisky, but I’ve made an exception for your releases so far. Obviously it makes sense to me to buy both of each release as I have two young sons I’d like to share and discuss your whisky with in the distant future. Do you typically find buyers taking the Wee Brother and Big Brother as a pair?
Na Bràithrean: It really varies. When we do tastings, most people have a favourite and snap that one up at the end because they have tasted them both. One of our main stockists – Aberdeen Whisky Shop – only sells our bottles in pairs, and they do really well there because Nick is great at selling our story, too. When it comes to our online website, we have our customers who buy both to have side-by-side, but we also have those who love a finish, making the Big Brother the best seller every time. It’s a real mix, really, but the Wee Brother definitely does better at tastings than it does online and the Big Brother does better online most times.
Malt: Your previous releases have had age statements and price points in a narrow but pleasingly accessible price bandwidth. Is this a deliberate position that is likely to continue, or do you plan to expand into older whiskies in due course?
Na Bràithrean: We decide this on a case-by-case basis. In the same way as taste, we don’t sell anything we wouldn’t buy which can be challenging and as it’s a competitive market. We have plans to grow outturns at the moment, but will try price ourselves in this same area for now.
Malt: The labels have been a noticeable aspect of your releases, with the simple but intriguing diagrams of the whisky distilleries and a clean and modern the style. Can you describe a bit about the development of the branding and the recent tweaks?
Na Bràithrean: We love the design we have now and it’s something we see as very important. It needed to reflect who we are, which is: relatively young whisky drinkers who aren’t stuck up about whisky, and the modern look suits. The map on the bottle has always been a massive part of our branding. We wanted each release to look different and not shy away from the origin. To us the map is a nod to the distillery, which is very important to the taste of the whisky, so shouldn’t be ignored. We think we have branding that appreciates the distillery but is unique to us, too.
We are fine tuning the information about the whisky that is presented on the label. A lot of cost is in the label and it’s important we make sure the cost is well spent. You could spend crazy money on the labels but we need to ask ourselves, “Does our customer want to pay extra for this?” As for the cardboard boxes: we love the boxes. They were so well designed with the intentions of using them forever, but as soon as we rebranded, looked at the new bottles in the boxes, we thought the bottles actually held their own. We are seeing how this goes currently. but we don’t expect to be ordering more. Cutting out the packaging is also good for the environment. I think more companies are doing the same.
Malt: How are you finding the market for casks at the moment? How have you been received as new commers to a very competitive marketplace?
Na Bràithrean: The cask market is tough as there are a lot of cask traders who just put their margins on top of others, which inflates prices. We have good suppliers so that helps. The industry support has been great, I think people see our idea and appreciate what we are trying to do.
Representation at retailers was hard at first, because we launched right at the beginning of lockdown, so couldn’t sell our story in person. It’s important people understand the story fully or we are just another two bottles on the shelf. Now it’s okay, as we have a bit of a following, but we hope to still reach further afield and try get into more retailers.
Malt: Finally, when my sons and I are enjoying a dram of the Glencadam or Caol Ila in 10 to 15 years’ time, we might look back at this article and reflect. Do you have any useful advice about brotherly good relations that I can pass on to them then?
Na Bràithrean: I definitely feel too young and foolish to be handing out any advice! But I’d say to Lachlan and Murdoch: make sure you have lots of stories to tell when you have you drams. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story either. When it comes to whisky, don’t be scared to say something stupid. Your dad will be sounding off mad tasting notes and telling you about fermentation times and other geeky thing but:
If you don’t know what he’s saying, ask!
If you disagree, disagree!
And if he’s chatting shite, tell him he’s chatting shite!
Malt: that’s very sage advice. I imagine by the time the lads are old enough for us to settle down for our first dram together both will already be adept at calling me out for talking shite!
Na Bràithrean Dalmunach Wee Brother – Review
Bourbon barrel, aged six years. 52% ABV. £65.
Colour: Pale straw.
On the nose: Sweet oat porridge with soft brown sugar, grist, pot ale, white orchard fruits developing with time, sourdough starter.
In the mouth: Sweet, effervescent fruit, midget gems, peppery spirit, dry oak, the fruit is interestingly complex for a six-year-old whisky, ripe pear, melon, sweet red apples. There is good body and the finish is typically short for the age, with some fresh tobacco notes.
I was taken aback by this. By far the best Dalmunach I’ve had. It is complex and very drinkable at the bottling strength. I have high hopes for the distillery output.
Na Bràithrean Dalmunach Big Brother – Review
Oloroso quarter cask finish aged six years. 50% ABV. £75.
On the nose: Toasted oats, macadamia nut brittle, highland toffee, date paste, Brûlée, baked apple, sweet pasty case, crème caramel, Moffat toffee.
In the mouth: Rich toasted nut and fruity toffee, cask char, caramelised sugar, the complex fruity notes fight through the thick sherry, milk chocolate covered raisins. Peppery and fruity finish but the sherry is very cloying and sweet with a distinct note of Tabak Especial Oscuro Cigar.
This is a little much finish for my palate, too much sherry and not enough of the interesting fruits from the Wee Brother but at the same time nothing wrong, just modern sherry seasoned casks doing their thing.
Na Bràithrean Glenburgie Wee Brother – Review
Refill bourbon hogshead, aged 10 years. 50% ABV. £70.
Colour: Reposado tequila.
On the nose: Creamy newmake, sharp brambles, grist, stone milled flour, thick milled porridge oats, cherry stones, lemon sherbet, cement dust.
In the mouth: Tequila blanco, lemon oil, lemoncello, peach schnapps, oat milk, daffodils, dry powdered hot chocolate, peppery spirit, slightly salty with some fatty biltong and a short finish
Not very easy to get excited about this one, the whisky is raw rather and the cask must have had a hard life prior to being refilled. This may just have sung with another 15 years in a dunnage warehouse, but we’ll never know now.
Na Bràithrean Glenburgie Big Brother – Review
Pinot noir ex-Islay finish aged 10 years. 50% ABV. £75.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Smoky un-milled barley, salty Arbroath Smokie, sweet macerated strawberries and forest fruits mixed berries. Rumtopf even. A pinch of ground cinnamon, porridge oats, crushed limestone.
In the mouth: meaty, oily and salty, then sweet, smoked haddock, kabanos, fruit chutney, oatcakes, strawberry with cracked black pepper, sweet and sour peppery finish, dry bladderwrack.
Here is a finish working very hard to take an underperforming spirit from the original cask and greatly enhance it. It’s not an iconic Glenburgie, but it is certainly 100% unique. It’s an experience for the senses but not in a universally pleasing way.
I don’t think these releases will end the debate over finishing one way or another, nor will they make whisky of the year. They are, though, the most interesting whiskies, and certainly server their purpose as vehicles for discussions in the future. They will no doubt ignite fascinating debate at whisky tastings. A pair will make a fantastic gift for the whisky geek who has everything. These releases are crying out to be opened and shared between whisky fans. From that perspective you could easily add a point to each of the scores above, which would push these into safe whisky ground. I’ll certainly continue to keep an eye out for future releases.
Readers can also find a review of the Na Bràithrean Caol Ila Brothers over on Dramface.
Photos from Na Bràithrean and authors’ own.