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Gems from Cadenhead with Daniel Bruce McLaren

From time to time we must all confront the things we fear the most; spiders, flying, death and worst of all… a lineup of seven whiskies, all aged in bourbon casks, bar one, but which happens to be a single grain whisky. I did at one point fear for my life introducing the lineup, but this was an important tasting, with small batch whiskies of pedigree from the Cadenhead stables, and as always, we would be putting some theories to the test and taste.

A quick read of the labels showed that these whiskies were bottled in small quantities, but from multiple hogsheads - which begged the question, “why such small volumes?” Had the casks been leaking or had the angels been having more than their fair share? If the casks had been leaking, were they any good, and did this explain the colour of the whiskies - some of which were remarkably light (even for bourbon). Lastly, would the new make style of the distilleries shine through, less encumbered by active oak, and would this new make style be any good?

As expected, the whiskies showed some beautifully light, floral and almost vegetal aromas on the nose, classically Speyside one might say. This saw them move through the seasons, starting with the Spring-like pines and green apples of the Glen Grant 1992 24yo 45.9% and Tomintoul 2006 11yo 60.7%, and ending with a serving of winter vegetables in the shape of the Glen Spey 2001 16yo 54%. This was like delving into a hessian sack of earthy carrots, tatties and neeps that were then roasted and served on the palate. The North British Grain 1985 32yo was a rare glimpse of summer, an encounter with a Rum smuggling pirate, sailing the caribbean, and eating oranges in an attempt to stave off scurvy. It wasn’t everyone’s tipple but offered a nostalgic glimpse of a bygone era.

The Balmenach 2005 12yo 55.4% and Knockdhu 2006 11yo 54.7% were ethereal and light, and with hints of spice giving them an aperitif like quality. Savoury, salty and citrus, the Balmenach was a tequila slammer, whilst the Knockdhu offered us a chilled manzanilla served with green olives.

Our winner on the night was the Glenrothes 1996 21yo 50.9%. With some evident colour it offered more depth of flavour than the other single malts, and had us back in more favourable and familiar territory. Butyric stilton-like hints combined with tobacco elements on the nose and led to a surprisingly rich dessert course of brandy snaps, marzipan and brandy butter on the palate. In fact, this theme was consistent across the tasting, with many of the whiskies proving sweeter on their palates than their noses had suggested and commonly offering chocolate, toffee and caramel. Seemingly, the lighter hand of American oak had let the sweetness of the malt shine through.

But despite these sweet treats, there was a palpable sense of disappointment in the room, a sense that these Cadenheads were delivering below expectation, and thoughts turned to the quality of what had initially gone into some of the casks, especially from the lesser known distilleries. Ultimately, the question on everyone's lips was whether these whiskies offered good examples of Bourbon aged Scotch, and of course, some did, whilst some didn't.

It’s fair to say these whiskies were not immediate crowd pleasers, more thinking whiskies that might take some time to get to know, and would certainly have a place in any collection at home based on this merit. After all, whisky is about enjoying the contrast, the light and the dark, the yin and the Yan, heaven and hell… bourbon and sherry.

Here’s the scores for those who are keen…

Glenrothes 1996 21yo 50.9%.  - 8.14

North British Grain 1985 32yo  - 7.61

Glen Spey 2001 16yo 54% -  7.59

Balmenach 2005 12yo 55.4% - 7.49

Glen Grant 1992 24yo 45.9% - 7.47

Tomintoul 2006 11yo 60.7% - 7.01

Knockdhu 2006 11yo 54.7% - 6.9