Sometimes whisky can feel like snuggling up under a favourite blanket; like returning to a warm house at night after a long walk back home through the rain.
We don’t have time machines, but a bottle of whisky might be the closest thing that we’ve come to it. It’s not just the age statements, though; when you are drinking whisky decades old it can feel like reaching back through the years and touching the past.
Sometimes it’s just finding a bottle that you haven’t seen for years on a dusty shelf in some out of the way shop, instantly recalling a past long since faded from memory. It’s 2023, though; today’s out of the way bottle shops are more likely to be online whisky auctions.
I’ve carved out something of a niche on Malt searching for great value blends (either blended malt or grain blends) from independent bottlers. The fascination is always what is in the bottle. The likes of Signatory or Cadenheads have such vast aging stocks that you do suspect their blended releases are truly a mix of a wide array of casks. There will be times when even the bottler themselves won’t know what is in the component casks.
Other independent bottlers – such as Lady of the Glen – are able to be transparent with the components of their blends, as they may only contain a small handful of cask ends blended together to use up some leftover stock and see what the result may be. The results may vary, but blends are a great way to purchase whisky with gaudy age statements and, when done well, are by no means inherently inferior to single malt.
I had not examined where my affection for indie blends originated… until last month, browsing the bottles at auction in Australia, I was hit across the face with a steaming pile of prime nostalgia. North Star’s 20 year old Spica! It all came tumbling back to me. I believe this was where the love of the indie blend started for me.
Bottled in 2018, with a distillation date given of 1997, this was released (I believe) with the first out-turn from North Star and retailed for only $99 in Australia. When this was released, I couldn’t quite believe the value for money on offer. The price of whisky has shot up since 2018, but even back then, $99 seemed very good. It wasn’t 40% ABV, it was from a new indie bottler, the label design was magnetic, and it was two decades old. At that price, I dare you to beat that! By 2023, North Star are releasing 6 and 10 year old blends for the same price.
I loved this bottle in 2018, but that was 2018 me. Pre-writing for Malt Review. Pre-pandemic. Pre-a lot of things really. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, and my tastes have moved on. Seeing this come up at auction was a chance to test the progress of time, to stand in judgement of the 2018 version of Mark P.
After this release, I pursued North Star’s Vega and other Spica releases, then blends from Cadenheads, Adelphi,Signatory, (latterly) Thompson Bros and others. But the North Star 20 year old Spica was the genesis of that passion.
I won the bottle at auction for $165 Australian dollars, and with fees and postage, it ended up costing a hair under $200 delivered (even at double the original cost, still not the worst value in 2023).
A blend of grain and malt whisky, bottled at cask strength with an outturn of 1,000 bottles, 45.2% ABV. I am excited to step into a time machine and travel back.
North Star Spica 20 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Review
Colour: Ruby red.
On the nose: Soft sulphur, green bark and chopped green stir fry vegetables. A little mint, lime cordial, green grapes, and bamboo leaf. Then, with more time in the glass, some caramel and leather which likely speaks to the age.
In the mouth: Lighter and fresher than you’d imagine, with plenty of sweetness. Perhaps that’s from the grain. This isn’t oily and doesn’t have anything resembling a thick mouthfeel. On the palate I get fruit straps (the type that go in kids lunchboxes), dried cranberries, then blueberries. Then some coffee beans, honey, and plum jam. Eminently drinkable, almost a summer dram. Just a lovely blend.
Not the thickly sherried, musty dram I had imagined from the colour and the age. Perhaps I was expecting more of a blended malt style, but the grain opens this up and adds an unexpected dimension. It does fall short of being truly exceptional due to a lack of depth and development but, having said that, I dare suspect it’ll challenge for the title of “the best bottle of whisky I ever buy for under $100.”
It’s hard for me to be impartial about the North Star Spica 20. Call me corny, call me a sentimental old fool; I am just happy to have this back in my collection. It’s a bottle that gives me a grin whenever I happen to glance its way. And that’s what whisky auctions can make possible. It took me years to embrace them; now I am an addict. I might nurse this bottle out over a few years.