Whisky tastings are all about the whisky, right? Most of the time I’d agree with you, but a couple of nights ago I attended a tasting hosted by Alex Bruce, director of the Adelphi Distillery. And even though the whiskies were important (I’ll get to them at the end of this post), listening to Alex and hearing his stories was at least as interesting. I really liked what I heard about Adelphi’s new Ardnamurchan distillery. And my main conclusion: it’s hard out there for an independent bottler.
Not the most surprising insight. But I found it interesting to hear an insider tell about the way an independent bottler goes about his business. Up until not too long ago, Adelphi would get loads of samples, and it was essentially just about picking the cherries. Roughly one in forty samples was (and still is) deemed good enough by the nosing team, that is being chaired by Charles MacLean.
Nowadays it is incredibly difficult to acquire casks with quality whisky, because demand for whisky is incredibly high. And companies will keep their own whisky rather than sell it to brokers or independent bottlers. “A couple of years ago there were a lot of great casks of Caol Ila from the early eighties”, Alex told us, as he tried to illustrate the different landscape in which independent bottlers operate today. “But that is a thing from the past. I don’t think I have seen a single cask of eighties Caol Ila in the past two years.”
That is why Adelphi (and I guess other indy bottlers as well) are choosing another tactic. “We have resorted to trading casks, instead of buying them straight up”, Alex said. “And that is also where our new distillery comes in handy, because we now have the possibility to trade our own new make spirit.”
Adelphi also recently acquired two parcels of casks from an undisclosed company, comprising around 200 casks in total. Some of those casks were good enough to be bottled immediately, others have to mature for a couple of extra years, others could be used for trading. So Adelphi is set for the foreseeable future, but I’d say the smaller independent bottlers, the one without their own stock, are going through a hard time.
Just a couple of months ago Adelphi opened their own distillery, situated on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. During my summer vacation in 2013 I actually passed the construction site, when I was on my way to Ardnamurchan Point, the most westerly point of the island of Great Britain. I took a quick snapshot (see below) and only later found out the details what was really going on there.
The road to Ardnamurchan distillery offers great scenery, but is hell. In 2013 I thought it would be fun to drive from Ardgour to Ardnamurchan Point, a trip of a mere fifty miles. But on the single track road driving is slow and the road was not exactly flat. After going up and down every three seconds for 20 miles, I turned the car around. As you can imagine, getting all the building materials to the distillery wasn’t an easy task. Alex: “That’s why all of our equipment, like our stills and our mashtun, has a maximum width of 3,3 meters. Otherwise it could not be transported to the distillery.”
During the tasting, we got to try some of the new make spirit from Ardnamurchan distillery. It was very fruity, a bit tropical, (very) lightly peated and rather complex for a spirit. The peat actually comes from the water they use, but in 2015 they will also do some distillation runs with peated malt. “We are looking for a sort of Highland Park/Talisker-style whisky”, Alex explained. “Bunnahabhain is the inspiration for our sherry matured whisky.”
Adelphi’s single casks
We’ll have to wait years before we can taste proper matured whisky from Ardnamurchan distillery. Only then can we judge if they reach their lofty goals. Luckily Adelphi still releases single casks from other distilleries, meaning I actually got to taste some whisky during our evening with Alex Bruce. We were offered six different whiskies. Below are my quick notes.
Royal Brackla 1997/2013 (56,8%, #5564): Some pear, apple, vanilla and cinnamon, a bit spirity. The taste is more farmy and has less fruit (82) Glen Grant 1996/2014 (54,4%, #67817): Cocos, marzipan, orange and toffee. Taste is nice and light, orange, grapefruit and citrus (86) Longmorn 1992/2014 (52,9%, #48506): Orange marmelade, chocolate. A very dry whisky with lots of tannins. Toffee and fudge (87) Fascadale #7 Highland Park (46%, 14yo): Lemon, caramel and peat. Tastes a bit dusty, ashy. Minerals. Not very complex (83) Liddesdale #6 Bunnahabhain (46%, 21yo): Raisins, orange peel. Some subtle sherry, a bit coastal with licorice and some salt (86) Glen Moray 1986/2013 (54,4%, #1931): Nougat, white chocolate and a bit gluey as well. Some coconut and orange. Zesty (88)
No real winner for me here. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the whiskies. The Glen Grant, Longmorn and Glen Moray were excellent. But I didn’t buy a single bottle (which is uncharacteristic for me after a tasting), which had to do with the prices. They ranged from 110 to 150 euro, except for the Fascadale (65 euro), but I didn’t enjoy that one enough to buy an entire bottle.