I’d never admit to it socially, but I’m fascinated by ships and seafaring.
Not modern stuff like super yachts or cargo monsters… well, actually, that’s not strictly true. Many years ago, after graduating from university and having watched too much of Micheal Palin’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” I harboured a strong hankering for travelling the world as a container ship passenger. Instead, I ended up interrailing around Europe for three weeks, but that’s neither interesting nor relevant to matters nautical.
Frigates and galleons – without any real understanding of definitions or differences – are where my real shipping interests lie. The world of Nelson, Napoleon, Patrick O’Brian, Paul Bettany and Russel Crowe.
There’s something incredibly alluring about the swashbuckling nature of sailing out to discover new lands or to find and fight the French – not specifically the French, it could be anyone – but in my Master and Commander fantasy it’s them. Dining at the captain’s table, doing a bit of ropes and stuff, and stopping off for good old-fashioned piss-ups at ports along the way. Glossing over the obvious likelihood of dysentery, disease, dental problems, and death; what’s not to love?
Naturally, when I saw that the new Ledaig – which I still manage to fumble every time I say it – Sinclair Series boasts a beautiful galleon/frigate on the box I was interested. As I’m sure you’re aware, Ledaig is a heavily peated whisky made at the Tobermory distillery on the Ise of Mull. Already a fan of the spirit, the ship swung it. I bought a bottle from the Whisky Exchange for £35.
Scotland 1 Spain 0
However, the ship in question – depicted on the box in Turneresque expressionist splendour, listing forward engulfed in waves as it fights through a ferocious storm – has nothing to do with Nelson or Napoleon or Russel Crowe for that matter.
It represents the San Juan de Sicilia, part of the ill-fated Spanish Armada that cocked up their plan to overthrow Elizabeth I and reinstate Catholicism in England in 1588.
Roaming around the Hebrides and running low on provisions, the ship’s senior officer negotiated safe harbour – a term which roughly translates as ledaig in Gaelic – with a local clan chief in return for a favour. The crew of the San Juan de Sicilia thus spent a month docked in Tobermory Bay helping a local clan kill other local clans.
When all of the local clan-killing was done, and the ship’s provisions were secured, it was time for the Spanish to set sail. Unfortunately, before they could scarper, one of the ship’s provisioners blew up the boat, killing almost everyone on board and sinking the San Juan de Sicilia – along with its rumoured cargo of Spanish gold – to the bottom of Tobermory Bay.
Alas, none of the various salvage attempts made over the past 400-odd years has turned up more than a couple of brass cannons and a “great iron gun” – which sounds impressive, if not valuable.
Perhaps the most famous of the would-be treasure hunters was the controversial 11th Duke of Argyll, who had a crack at lifting the loot in the 1950s shortly before getting very publicly divorced from his then-wife in a trial involving an infamous Polaroid photograph. Incidentally, the story of the Duke and his divorce was recently brought to life in the BBC’s “A Very British Scandal,” with the Duke played by none other than Paul Bettany. Sadly, not accompanied by Russel Crowe on this occasion, and with very little focus on the San Juan de Sicilia, which was a shame.
And so, back we come to the Ledaig Sinclar Series, with its ship-adorned box and Spanish seafaring connection that explains the Rioja cask finish the whisky has enjoyed. Is it worthy of a place at Captain Aubrey’s table? Or is it just gimmicky grog fit only for the lads below deck?
Ledaig Sinclair Series Rioja Cask Finish – Review
Colour: Black tea.
On the nose: Fruit tarts with a pleasant, worty sweetness. Maybe it’s because I knew that it was finished in Rioja casks, but there were definite cherry and plum aromas with a feinty-leathery underbelly you’d expect from a Gran Reserva. The smoke and spice – which are hard to get hold of – are subdued under the weight of the fruit.
In the mouth: Stewed apples and satsumas. It’s still surprisingly fruit-forward but within a few seconds – like a “great iron gun” hoisted up from the wreckage of the San Juan de Sicilia – a big meaty hit of peat smoke breaks through the surface with a bang. A pleasing residual saltiness lingers in the mouth over a medium finish.
This is too good for the lads below deck. Time to don the tricorn, pick up a Patrick O’Brian novel and pour another glass.
Plus point for the combination of value and experimental cask finish triumph.
Bottle image courtesy of The Whisky Exchange.