Three awesome whiskies … two of them the worst I have ever had.
March 31, 2011 § 1 Comment
When a Diageo employee opens a rare bottle of whisky and states that, ‘We don’t do this very often so you are very privileged to experience this,’ you know you are in for something special. In front of a select gathering of established whisky scribes, independent retailers and bloggers, three unique bottles of Scotch were placed on the table and opened. Two were Johnnie Walker Red Labels and the other an Old Mull, from the era when John Hopkins Ltd was the licensee of Tobermory Distillery.
The occasion was an evening presentation in a hotel in Grangemouth on the 30th March 2011, prior to a visit to the Diageo Archive at Menstrie the next day. The whiskies we were about to sample were part of that Archive and their inclusion in it was because the Red Labels were from the 1960s and 1930s and the Old Mull dated from 1917. Their condition? Well, the Red Labels had been taken into the collection already opened, and the 1960s sample had broken cork floating around in it. The 1930s sample was full of foreign bodies but the Old Mull was a complete bottle, opened on the night with only a little evaporation evident. The colour and condition looked good. The first Red Label (1960s) was duly dispensed into ‘blind’ blue tasting glasses and we prepared to nose. The aroma was indescribable. It beggared belief. I did not recognise a single element that one might expect in a whisky. It was execrable. One small sip confirmed that this was a blend that was dead and gone. The spirit had, quite literally, left. It was ditchwater. The 1930s sample fared similarly. Thankfully, the Old Mull proved that after almost 100 years an unopened bottle of Scotch, if well-preserved, can still remain a recognisable whisky. There was clear spirit on the nose with woody notes. The taste was slightly dry, with peardrops emerging after a small addition of water. Later some cocoa and citrus zest emerged.
As we concluded prior to a fine dinner, we agreed that these three tastings were amongst the most interesting we had ever experienced. In one word, I thought all three whiskies were simply awesome.
The drams after dinner were of more recent vintage. The 8th Rare Malts release of Port Ellen (£180), distilled in 1978 and bottled 29 years later at 55.3%. A Glenury Royal (£500) from 1970 and bottled at 57.9% after 36 years. One of the last distillations from Brora (£175) before it closed in 1983 and bottled in 2008 at 25 years and 56.3%. Finally, a 12-year-old Talisker bottled in 2007 at 45.8% for the Friends of the Classic Malts which Richard Joynson suggested we try before dinner straight with ice. We did, and it made for an interesting contrast to the normal delivery method.
The first three whiskies were all bottled at cask strength so it begs the question about the accepted rate of evaporation from the cask which weakens the spirit. If you assume that they were all filled at the normal 65-67%abv, then over the course of their maturation they have retained a remarkable proportion of alcohol. The Glenury, in particular, is astounding at 57.9% after 36 years in wood!
The Diageo Archive
The route to the Archive took us over the new road bridge at Kincardine. As we neared the northern shore of the port the ruins of Kennetpans Distillery appeared on the left with the remnants of its sister distillery on the right incorporated into the Oran group’s factory buildings at Kilbagie. This is where the whisky industry in Scotland was first industrialised by the Stein family in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Effectively, this is Mecca for the whole industry as we know it today as these concerns were the largest of their type and it was at Kilbagie that Robert Stein invented the patent still in 1826, which revolutionised the manufacture of spirit around the world. Kennetpans is slowly being revealed as the new owner cuts back years of undergrowth from the buildings and he eventually hopes to stabilise the site and give the distillery the prominence it deserves.
Had I not mentioned Kennetpans’ existence to the bloggers on the bus, they would have been none the wiser. This new breed are all creatures of the ‘now’ and are mischeviously referred to by one respected whisky writer as the Khmer Rouge of whisky writing as they have all started at year ‘zero’ with barely any knowledge of the heritage of the industry. They have a lot of catching up to do, but they’ll get there eventually.
The Archive itself is based at Glenochil House at the old Glenochil Distillery outside Menstrie where the Kerry yeast factory is situated and close to Blackgrange where over 500 million litres of Scotch whisky mature. Under Christine McCafferty’s management there are a further four archivists dealing with specific brand portfolios within the collection. We were split into two groups and taken on a tour of this remarkable facility.
Within Glenochil House itself the live bottle collections are kept along with some brand-oriented records, publicity materials and other publications. The bulk of the collection is housed in an adjoining warehouse where the artifacts represent an astonishingly catholic range. Here be dragons, white horses, life-size celebrity cut-outs, football cups, distillery records, bottles (empty), marketing paraphernalia and plain, old-fashioned boxes of correspondence and records, the most interesting of which comprise shelves full of matters relating to the Ernest Saunders affair when Guinness took over Arthur Bell & Sons and the DCL. To say that all of this is interesting is the understatement of the year. To wit, one single instance of what can be happened upon. Vince Fusaro found some DCL annual reports on distillery output which clearly stated that Parkmore Distillery on Speyside was in operation in the late 1960’s. Furthermore Lochaber Distillery was similarly reported. This confused us. Parkmore was closed in the 1960s and we had never heard of Lochaber Distillery. It took a distiller to suss out part of the conundrum. Donald Colville looked more closely at the records and noticed that they related to output of malted barley only, in other words, the floor maltings at both plants were in operation but neither was distilling actively. Once the tour was over we went our separate ways but there was one burning question that was still bothering me … Lochaber Distillery?
Who was at the Diageo Archives?
Whisky writers: Ian Buxton, Charles MacLean, Tom Bruce-Gardyne, yours truly.
Diageo staff: Donald Colville, Christine McCafferty, Joanne McKerchar, Alia Campbell, Heather Malcolm