Let’s face it, It’s always a pleasure to line up a really expensive selection of whiskies! You know, the ones you’d like in your cabinet but are too scared to remortgage your house to acquire or are too worried your partner might discover the evidence of you purchasing in a credit card statement.
In all honesty, they rarely live up to expectation, but what they can lack in perceived quality they almost always make up for from an intellectual point of view, and the chance to grapple intellectually with whisky is arguably priceless.
Bearing this in mind I really genned up on the distilleries involved at the recent Best of What’s Left! tasting at Regional Wines. This was indeed one of those lineups, with four old-age Adelphi single casks, a 28 yo Cadenhead Bunnahabhain, a 25 yo OB Laphroaig and a pricey mystery whisky.
I looked into the things that might determine how the whiskies would present on the night. The distillery style I guess you might say, or, at least, the tricks the distilleries supposedly use to create their style. Fermentation times, distillation regimes, styles of stills, condensers and of course the casks.
I learnt about the lyne arms at Glen Keith that angle upwards away from the still and increase reflux driving a lighter style of malt. I learnt about the deeper cut points at Laphroaig that help make a heavier phenolic spirit; the long fermentation times at Longrow that help produce a lighter, fruitier, ester driven malt and the the partial triple distillation at Mortlach that ensures more contact with copper and therefore a cleaner lighter spirit.
Being a whisky expert is easy I thought - but the more I read, the more I realised that these distilleries, and indeed their whiskies, could not be defined by one simple fact. And, if you do this - there is almost always a contradiction at some point in the route to the final product.
Take Mortlach for example. Any attempt at a lighter spirit thanks to partial triple distillation is then countered by the use of worm tubs and the employment of a squat spirit still called Wee Witchie which eventually results in less contact with copper and thus a spirit that is famously meaty.
Or Bunnahabhain, with its large stills that are filled low and encourage reflux and copper contact but, somehow, is famous for a new make that is oily and slightly sulphurous.
And then there was the Laphoroaig with its deep phenolics but which had, of course, receded immensely thanks to 25 years in the cask.
Even the Glen Keith, with it’s lighter spirit and bourbon ageing was then independently bottled at a whopping 60.5%, seemingly doing away with any notion of subtlety and resulting in what felt like a massive whisky.
It occurred to me that the notion of distillery style based on some key stage in the distillation was pretty much a fallacy - highlighted further when tasting from single casks. Distilleries are aiming at one thing - complexity - and this involves throwing whatever they can at the process from start to finish and it is this that defines their malt. The esters derived from a longer ferment merely become a complexing element when the make is then thrown into a refill sherry cask at 67% and aged for 25 years. The long ferment has played its part, but it doesn't define the whisky.
There are too many influential stages to creating whisky for it to be defined by just one and, of course, when you think about it, it is the complex process of whisky production that runs hand in hand with the complexity that we all find and love in the final product.
Here’s the order that the whiskies were tasted in with the scores on the night and their comparative Whiskybase scores. It would appear that Wellingtonians score in a broader range!
- Cadenhead Bunnahabhain 1989 28 YO 43.8% 8.0 (WB 87.96)
- Adelphi Linkwood 1993 25 YO 50.4% 8.08 (WB 86.25)
- Laphroaig 25 YO 50.9% 8.9 (WB 90.75)
- Mystery Whisky - Longrow 21yo (2020) 8.05 (WB 90.38)
- Adelphi Bowmore 1994 / 25 YO #554 54.2% 9.01 (WB 89.95)
- Adelphi Glen Keith 1995 23 YO #8512 60.5% 8.87 (WB 90.0)
- Adelphi Mortlach 1993 25 YO 56% 9.47 (WB 88.98)