Our members only may tasting is five of Gordon and MacPhail’s connoisseurs choice range. Below is Pat’s background info and notes, along with some accompanying comments and scores from Tony.
The 1960s was a boom time for whisky. Many new distilleries appeared, among them Tomintoul, Tormore and Clynelish, to help slake an increasing consumer thirst for whisky. It was also the decade when consumers were able to finally lay their hands on single malts from distilleries whose output had hitherto been used only as constituents of blends.
In 1960, George Urquhart, owner of Gordon & MacPhail, started the independent bottlers’ range known as Connoisseurs Choice. Rather than simply buy casks of maturing whisky as and when they became available on the open market or were deemed surplus to requirements by blenders, it sent selected casks to distilleries to have them filled with their new-make spirit, bottling them only when it felt the whisky was ready.
In many cases Independent Bottlings are limited edition, single cask editions that can never be repeated. In others, such as the Connoisseurs Choice range, they are larger batch malts that are the result of marrying together numerous casks. The important thing is that Gordon and MacPhail can determine when is the best time to bottle its malts, rather than wait for good quality malts to appear on the market and compete with the dozens of other Independent Bottlers to get the good ones. Slightly confusingly, the Connoisseurs Choice tends to express the age of each whisky as a vintage (i.e. the year it was distilled), but also provides the year of bottling. Vaguely sensible, you might think. But, because there are no exact dates, it is difficult to know whether, say, a whisky distilled in 1975 and bottled in 2005 is twenty nine or thirty years old.
Does it matter? Some people might think so. However, they are now being more specific so that an exact age is possible to determine in some of their expressions (not these, though). Independent bottlings can be a bit hit and miss. Buy one from a reputable bottler and the chances are you will have acquired anything between a decent and stellar dram, but there is always the chance you will purchased something near undrinkable. I’ve certainly never tasted anything bad from Gordon and MacPhail but there is no doubt that independent bottlings can be risky, particularly from some closed distilleries near the end of their days where the quality of the casks may not have been uppermost in the minds of the management.
Dom’s view on Independent bottlings is that they are akin to hearing your favourite band, unplugged; it’s definitely them but not as you usually know them. We have selected five expressions. From Speyside: Balmenach and Glenlossie; from the Highlands: Aberfeldy; from the Islands: Arran, and from Islay: Caol Ila. Gordon and MacPhail’s range changes constantly so there is always something of interest to any scotch drinker in its catalogues. All of these are bottled at 46% (hurrah!).
Balmenach (Speyside) is one of the more invisible distilleries, even by Speyside’s standards. In the process of researching the distillery for a book, I rang up InverHouse, its parent company, to ask about it. The response was something along the lines of “Balmenach??? Oh I don’t have anything to say about that distillery”. What a pity that a distillery that can produce some excellent malts should be so ignored and taken for granted. This particular expression was matured in refill sherry butts and bottled in 2013, making it somewhere between 8 and 9 years old.
Pat says: Nose: Cream soda. Faint oak. Aniseed. Overripe fruit.
Palate: Pretty damn spicy but with heaps more aniseed and a creamy, vanilla and oaky finish.
Tony says: I’ve never had a Balmenach before. The nose is not great, too spirity. This whisky is a little harsh at first, it comes in with a spirit hit. This fades, and more flavours emerge, especially vanilla, and becomes quite oaky at the end. Definitely fills the mouth. Apparently this is in a refill sherry butt, but I think it may have been refilled a few times, as I detect little sherry influence. I’m going to leave it for 10 mins and come back … hmm, both better and worse after 15 mins. Not so harsh at the beginning, but flatter in the middle and the end. This is an ok whisky, but only gets 80/100 from me
The older neighbour of Mannochmore, Glenlossie is a component of the Haig blend. Two years ago, in answer to the increasing thirst for scotch, Glenlossie increased its production to 7 days a week and three million litres of spirit per year. Despite this increase, the “Flora and Fauna” bottling is one of only two official releases, the other being one of Diageo’s Manager’s Choice series. This expression was bottled in 2014, making it somewhere between 15 and 16 years old.
Nose: Fruity and tangy with a very faint Parma violets tinge and a definite orange and lemon theme.
Palate: The orange and lemon theme returns with a vengeance. Light and crisp with aniseed and an increasing hit of oak but with a creamier finish. Amazing what refill sherry casks can produce!!
Tony Says: I don’t think I’ve ever tasted Glenlossie or indeed Haig blend, although we have had several Dimples, which I believe is related, and the Haig club, but that is a whole different story. According to Pat this is another refill sherry cask, but I would have guessed it was a bourbon cask. This is quaffable. a light nose and a smooth dram, creamy and well balanced. Tasty, but fairly anonymous. 82/100.
Aberfeldy is in the Eastern Highlands and was almost unknown until it was bought by Bacardi in 1998. The majority of the production goes into blends, and Aberfeldy forms the heart of the Dewar’s range of blended whisky. The distillery also hosts the “Dewar’s World of Whisky” visitor centre. This expression, bottled in 2014, was matured in refill sherry hogsheads, making it somewhere between 14 and 15 years old.
Nose: A lot going on here, with milk chocolate, pears and nectarines plus an underlying hint of crystallised ginger and orange and grapefruit peel.
Palate: Pungent and aromatic with jellied fruit sweets and a merest hint of oak and something smoky lurking underneath.
Tony Says: This is much more to my liking, Aberfeldy is a solid highlander, and I generally prefer highland to speyside. Nose is creamy and a bit herbal, worth repeated sniffing. Taste is definitely highland, slight smoke, slight sweetness, touch of heather. Decent dram. 84/100.
Opened in 1995, The Arran distillery is situated just south of the village of Lochranza, on the Northern tip of the island. Although it has recently released an 18 year old expression, its whisky came of age long ago with a constant stream of superb malts in a variety of guises. Not as peaty (in its usual form) as you’d expect your average Island whisky to be, Arran’s whisky would be equally at home in the Northern Highlands with its slightly saline and fruity nature. Unbelievably, given the colour of this expression, this was matured in first-fill bourbon casks and was bottled in 2015, making it somewhere between 8 and 9 years old
Nose: An incredibly light nose with hints of cream, pepper and tropical fruits.
Palate: Peppery at first, then the softest and juiciest of fruits kick in (juicy fruit chewing gum, anyone?) with a touch of oak, lemon and lime and a soft, icing sugar finish.
Tony says I always associate two things with arran: fire and cream. It gives that alcohol burn (but in a good way) that is always tempered by a creamy smoothness. For me, Arran is very distinctive, and I love it for that. In the fire/cream balance, this is more cream. There is a hint of fire there, and it lingers on the finish, but smoothness is the order of the day, which is a little surprising given its age. 85/100
Caol Ila 2003
Although the biggest distillery in terms of output on Islay, Caol Ila is also the ugliest distillery on the island. No matter, though, because it produces superb phenolic, smoky whiskies and is the smoky heart of the Johnnie Walker blends (hence its huge output). Although it is best-known as a peaty big hitter, it also produces vast quantities of unpeated malt, which deserves a try if you ever get the opportunity. This expression is somewhere between its peated and unpeated form. It was matured in first-fill bourbon casks and was bottled in 2015, making it somewhere between 11 and 12 years old, but very, very different from the official 12 year old peated expression.
Nose: The peat is distant but intermingled with the salt, marzipan, nuts, apples, tropical fruit and buttercream.
Palate: Again, the peat plays a distant role. It starts off virtually unnoticed but becomes as clear as a bell (if subdued), as does the oak, with a banoffee and baked apple and cinnamon accompaniment.
I love this nose, it smells like drinking whisky too early in the morning at the Islay festival. I see pat’s point a bit, there are notes of the caol ila unpeated, some background banana flavours, but I’m getting shit loads of peat off this myself, and the longer its in the glass the more I get.