One of the most beautiful things about the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is the sheer variety of events. You can book distillery visits if you’d like to experience a specific whisky’s vertical, you can pick out the various tours that hit several distilleries related in some arcane yet fascinating way, or, if the old dogs are tired and you’re seeking to quench a thirst or expand your whisky horizons, you can book into one of the many whisky tastings.
I considered myself a ‘yes’ on all three of those last points when I popped into Dufftown’s Masonic lodge on back-to-back nights for a couple of spirited, ahem, whisky tastings courtesy of The Whisky Shop. Dufftown claims the title of ‘Whisky Capital of the World,’ so that means Mike Lord, the owner of Dufftown’s primary whisky shop, is aptly named. Mike’s shop in Dufftown is a candy store for whisky aficionados. Hundreds of bottles line shelves from floor to ceiling all around the shop, and at any given moment he must have 50 open bottles available for customers to try before they buy. I might’ve spent half a day in his shop, drooling on my shirt, pretending my bank account had a few extra zeroes, and planning a fantasy heist (FANTASY!). Each festival, Mr. Lord puts on several thematic whisky tastings. I jumped at the chance to be a part of the Speyside Independent Bottling challenge and a line-up of whiskies from Wemyss Malts.
Speyside Independent Bottling Challenge
My first tasting at the hands of Mr. Lord proved to be a blind run of seven drams from independent bottlers of Speyside whiskies. For experienced whisky drinkers, a blind tasting can lead to some awesome and unexpected results. With no distillery names and no age statements – just a dram in a glass – there’s nothing to bias the drinker. I was able to truly focus on flavors and aromas and pay more attention to what I like rather than what I should like. The challenge was that attendees were asked to write down tasting notes and hand them in at the conclusion of the session. The writer of the best notes, as judged by Mike, would be allowed to choose one of the bottles to take home. I’m uncertain if this actually happened since I didn’t leave with a bottle…”Cloves swimming in Chanel N°5,” “fecund forest floor,” “apricots soaked in Marsala” – I mean, come on Mike! Those were money!
Whisky #1. This cask-strength baby came from the womb of an ex-Bourbon barrel. Spicy vanilla notes intermingle with floral and grassy aromas. Citrus hides in the background – think grapefruit. It noses like a classic Bourbon-aged whisky. Strangely, I detect the faintest touch of smoke, which is quite rare for Speysiders. The palate is rich and creamy with more smokiness, though still not a lot. A dash of water hurts this dram. Mike mentioned lemons and limes but I didn’t pick those up. Revealed to be a Benromach 2001 vintage (smoke should have been a dead give away).
Whisky #2. Mike revealed this dram to be a single Bourbon cask whisky. This one’s a bit older than the first one. Loads of lemon cut with sweet toffee truffles. Very subtle nose. On the palate there’s candied lemon peel, those chewy jelly fruit slices, a hint of spice in the background. The finish brings forth a breath of chili spice. No water necessary for this cask strength dram. Revealed to be Wemyss Lemon Grove 1989 (22yo Cragganmore).
Whisky #3. Creamy spiciness on the nose with splashes of fruit punch and marzipan. Something like custard behind the frontline aromas. The palate is very similar to the nose with the creaminess and vanilla jacked up. Mostly Bourbon characteristics, but some Sherry on the side. Very drinkable. Revealed to be a 1991 Linkwood from The Octave by Duncan Taylor.
Whisky #4. The nose on this hangs heavy with maltiness, rich fruitiness, and an interesting earthy note. Lots of toffee/honey dripping over the top. It has something reminiscent of a dessert wine cask finish. The palate is very rich and creamy. More honey and earthy spiciness. Mike picks out tangerines, daffodils, mango, and sackcloth and cork on the palate (in a good way). Revealed to be Old & Rare Single Cask Glen Grant 25yo.
Whisky #5. Subtle red ripe fruits indicative of a Sherry cask. I love that winey, oaky deliciousness on the nose. This one’s earthy, too, with a hint of smokiness. Who can say if it’s from the Sherry cask spending years in smoky bodegas or from peat? Quite subtle and complex on the palate with a big finish. Delicious. Revealed to be another Glen Grant 25yo, this time from Gordon & MacPhail.
Whisky #6. Boiled fruit and sweets stand out loud and clear on the nose, punctuated by citric orange notes. Also tinny fruit cocktail syrup and crystallized sugar. Very sweet. I can detect a huge amount of complexity on the nose, but it’s just a bit too subtle for my sense of smell. This is classic old Sherried whisky. Revealed to be Berrys’ Glenlivet 1973. Wow, 38 years old.
Whisky #7. This monster leaps from the glass; it is clearly an old Sherry beast. Lovely fruitiness with a touch of wood, maybe some Brandy-soaked fruitcake. Should be required when sitting before the fire. On the palate it’s not as sweet as it smells. This has to be from an old Sherry cask – the wood’s not gone too far, the sherry’s not gone too far. Tiny bit of Mint? Revealed to be a 1969 Adelphi Glenrothes – that’s 42yo. Loved it.
I don’t know if Mike does stand-up comedy on the side, but he’s one seriously funny guy. The tasting was incredible and took me and the packed lodge through some really cracking whiskies, as they say. The Glenlivet 1973 took my top prize. More please. Please?
The second tasting sponsored by The Whisky Shop in Dufftown showcased Wemyss Malts (pronounced WEEMS). Susan Colville, who was just finishing up her stint as Wemyss’ brand ambassador before moving to Glenglassaugh, guided us through five of the independent bottler’s malts. Wemyss takes a smart approach to marketing their whiskies: they use their tasting notes to label the bottle. While this isn’t an unprecedented idea, their names are far easier to decipher than, say, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s (see Leather Sofa Seduction). Susan made it abundantly clear that Wemyss prizes taste and quality above all else, eschewing whisky-industry dogma and distillery reputation in the process.
The Hive. We start the Wemyss tasting with a blended malt called The Hive. The name tells you what to expect: honey, waxiness, sweetness. This whisky contains 16 different Speyside malts, all of which are at least 12 years old, and 50% of this blend is composed of Glen Moray. There is some caramel coloring added. This is a real easy drinker – Susan calls it a “session whisky.” It is very sweet and the honey flavors and aromas are easy to discern. The waxiness appears on the palate with a mouth-coating sensation. This is not a whisky you’ll spend hours discussing, but it would sure make a nice companion to hours of discussion.
Rum & Raisin 1989. The remaining whiskies are all single cask single malt whiskies. First up is one bottle called Rum & Raisin. The nose is full of sweet vanilla bean and dried raisin and fig notes. I get burnt candy before rum & raisin ice cream, which Susan points out. Also angel food cake. This whisky is a 21yo from Tullibardine that spent its life in a refill hogshead. It’s a light, delicate dram that tastes younger than it is. Not my style.
Winter Spice 1982. Next up is a 29yo Teaninich called Winter Spice. This was bottled at 44.4% cask strength from a hogshead. The nose is loaded with a collection of “dessert” spices: cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon. There’s a dichotomy of heaviness and delicacy about it. I pick up a juiciness that reminds me of tropical fruits like pineapple, which is odd considering this whisky is called Winter Spice. There’s some earthiness in the background. Again, this tastes younger than its age, but I like it a lot despite its short finish.
Mocha Spice 1990. Mocha Spice is a 21yo Dalmore straight from a fresh Sherry butt. The chocolate/coffee mocha essence is obvious on the nose right off the bat. Some nutmeg and other spiciness from the Sherry butt, too. I’m reminded of the black bun dessert I ate on the Glenlivet Smuggler’s Trail. On the palate there’s some cardamom, mint, menthol, and toasted sugar. A little hot even though it is 46% ABV. I can’t stop thinking about hot chocolate spiked with Dr. McGillicuddy’s metholmint schnapps, which happens to be a particularly nauseous college memory.
Honey Spice 1991. We end the Wemyss tasting with a 19yo unpeated Bunnahabhain from a fresh Sherry butt. The nose is packed with all the delicious, moreish aromas from an excellent Sherried whisky. I detect leather behind the sweetness and interesting allium notes in the background (think scallions). There’s a youthful heat despite it being 19 years old. On the palate there’s a definite savory note of something cured and salty. Honey spice? Not sure about that. Maybe Bacon Spice.
Thanks to Mike Lord and Susan Colville for conducting delicious and informative tastings. I learned a lot about a side of the industry (independent bottlings) of which I was largely ignorant. Next time you’re in Dufftown, pop into Mike’s shop and tell him Traveling Savage said hello.
Disclosure: The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival and The Whisky Shop Dufftown provided me with complimentary entry to these tastings. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.