“I love a Scotch that’s old enough to order its own Scotch” – said the character Robin from the 2010’s sitcom that defined my generation of millennials, How I Met Your Mother.
I love a good NAS whisky and I don’t consider myself an age snob. Yet, undeniably there are certain Scotches that have demonstrated utter transformation by a few more years of maturation and high-quality oak.
Exactly how important is age? The whisky market’s singular obsession with age statements is in part a product of a spurt of demand in the 2010s and our reality being warped by the marketers of Big Whisky. Andrew Derbidge, better known as the writer of Whisky and Wisdom, wrote a fascinating piece explaining how a panoply of factors in 2010s – internet whisky sales and auctions, secondary markets and genuine sherry-matured whisky suddenly becoming very rare and expensive – made brands realise that there is now a devoted market for old and rare whiskies in contrast with NAS whisky. “There is now an unfair and somewhat unjustified glorification of old whisky” argues Andrew. Fact of the matter is that age never had the same significance in the 1970s and 80s. Back then, 10-year-old and 12-year-old releases were even considered “extra aged.”
So, older whisky isn’t always better whisky. Yet there will be exceptions in the world of malt…
To the South of Skye and North of Islay, in the Isle of Mull is a very attractive countryside town by the name of Tobermory.
Originally a beer brewery but converted into a distillery in 1823, Tobermory Distillery was passed through a succession of owners until it became owned by current owners Burn Stewart Distillers (now a part of Distell Group) who also own Deanston Distillery from the Highland and Bunnahabhain Distillery from Islay.
Around the mid-2000s, Tobermory was a misunderstood malt. Gifting someone an original bottling Tobermory Single Malt would be regarded about as thoughtful as returning from Switzerland only to gift your in-laws some grocery store Kit Kats. This was because a typical supermarket in the UK would inevitably be stocked with bottles of Tobermory 10 (and possibly Jura Tens) as the cheapest single malts in the liquor section. Whisky buffs found the original Tobermory 10 inoffensive but rather bland and forgettable, with no more than a faint wood mouldiness.
Things changed for the better in the early 2010s when Tobermory released this Oloroso sherry aged 15-year-old that went on to win Gold medal after Gold medal at competitions. This bottle made whisky drinkers go “why didn’t you release this earlier?” Just five extra years of maturation transformed the malt, making this aromatic, rich, full-bodied and complex with delicious notes of dried fruits and a long, spicy, nutty and umami finish.
Perhaps Tobermory realised that its slightly older releases vindicated its brand. In 2019, the distillery phased out its 10-year-old core expression, replacing it with a 12-year-old. And while the cask style remains ex-bourbon, it’s said that either more active wood was now used, or a component of older whisky has been added into the mixture to improve it.
Older is indeed better in the case of Tobermory.
And if older is better, why don’t we go all the way and taste a venerable 27-year-old Tobermory?
With that we turn to our bottle of the day which I got to taste at the Singapore bar opened by Scotch independent bottler The Single Cask (TSC). TSC tends to bottle natural cask strength whiskies that appeal to serious drinkers. It also offers whisky cask investment programmes available to retail investors – one of many investment themes catching on with pragmatic, money-minded Asian whisky enthusiasts or wealthy folks looking into alternative investment.
It’s hard to miss a TSC bottle from the liquor store shelves. They are immediately recognisable in their distinctively short squarish bottles with flat faces that set them apart from the circular bottles of other bottlers.
What I tasted was a TSC-bottled Tobermory 27 Years Old recommended by their bartender Weide when asked to recommend a heavily sherried expression. This was distilled in 1994, matured in a Sherry butt (Cask No. 5118), bottled in 2021, with an outrun of 258 bottles at 43.5% ABV.
The Single Cask Tobermory 27 Years Old 1994 – Review
Sherry Butt Cask No. 5118. 43.5% ABV. Retails for £179 (US$206) VAT-inclusive in the UK.
On the nose: Rich, round, complex with vibrant red fruits and a hint of herbs. Opens with a sweet aroma that resembles aged rhum agricole. Rich but approachable notes of figs, dried apricots, lashings of cranberry jam and orange marmalade. Then ascending into mild bright camphorous note with mint, cloves and fennel.
Herbal qualities fade and tart fruit tones grow. Develops into more fruitiness with light acidity. More berries now with raspberries and blackberries accompanied by a dry oak, dark chocolate and even a very slight touch of motor oil. Several minutes of resting appears to increase the sweetness and reduce its herbal qualities.
The nosing experience is superb. There’s much to unpack, yet disparate scents have been properly integrated in a way that really works.
In the mouth: Round, heavy, syrupy in consistency and taste. Its age can certainly be felt here. The first sip is fairly bright and honeyed, with a Calvados-like quality, before plunging quickly into concentrated jammy depths of cherries, prunes and red raisins. Liquorice and some baking spices begin to show, with anise and sweet cinnamon, developing into a very mild savoury nuttiness of roasted pecans and baked almonds.
The palate is big on flavour and intensity without being “over oaked” as some old whiskies are found to be. It is only on the finish that the dryness and mild bitterness of European oak begins to show. The finish is long with a fading note of jam, roasted pecans and a growing bitterness of strong Vietnamese black coffee, brown sugar and a bit of astringent wood.
Old is gold for this Tobermory… especially if you love intense jammy whiskies and sherry bombs.
This dram impresses from the get-go with a very rich, complex and vibrant nose that beckons a sip. While its age can be felt from the intensity of the palate, the barrel does not completely steal the show as with many old, heavily sherried expressions.
If one were to nit-pick, they might say that the nose feels significantly more complex and layered than the more straight-forward palate with its punchy intensity. But in my book, the very enjoyable nose ought to elevate my opinion of the dram rather than work as a benchmark to find fault with other components.