springbank laphroaig talisker highland park all malt berry bros & rudd

Dream Tasting: 100 Years of Berry Bros & Rudd

By all accounts, I’m a spoiled whisky drinker. Not as much as some, definitely more so than most. But I don’t regularly drink Highland Park 1966. Or Springbank 1968. Or Laphroaig 1977. Or Scotch whisky from Berry Bros & Co from the turn of the century. (Not this century, but bottled circa 1900.) Moreover, I’ve certainly never drunk whisky like that all in one sitting. Until a few weeks ago.

I’ve Jonny McMillan to thank for that. His name might, or maybe should, ring a bell. You could have come across him here, on this website. Most likely you’re familiar with his work for Berry Bros & Rudd, where he’s been involved with buying and selecting casks of whisky, rum and brandy. Also, and not in the least, he co-founded The Whisky Show: Old & Rare.

Now a new chapter awaits Jonny. After long praising the virtues of old-style whisky, he’s graduated to co-founder of the soon-to-be-build Kythe Distillery, which aims to revive old-school Highland whisky. But before he dives head-first into that new adventure in the coming months, he hosted the most incredible tasting in early November. Think of it as his final hurrah for Berry Bros & Rudd, celebrating 100 Years of Whisky from the London-based company.

You can scroll down for some brief tasting notes and thoughts on all whiskies, but here’s a preview of the entire line-up:

  • Berry Bros & Co Scotch Whisky (bottled c.1900)
  • Berry Bros & Rudd All Malt (1970s)
  • Springbank 1965 35 Years, Berry’s Own Selection
  • Highland Park 1966, St James’ label (bottled 1979)
  • Talisker 1974, Berry’s Own Selection (bottled 2001)
  • Laphroaig 1979, Berry’s Own Selection (bottled 1999)

That’s right… I was amazed too.

berry bros & rudd 100 years

The tasting was held in the Sussex Cellar of Berry Bros & Rudd in London, where Jonny shared these whiskies, all sourced from his collection. Many amazingly knowledgeable whisky people were in attendance, some of whom I had met before, while others became new acquaintances. I imagine Jonny knew everyone there in some capacity or other.

He certainly approached the evening like it was an informal get-together, saying “This isn’t a tasting where I’m going to do a talk. This is very much a bottle-sharing event where we’re coming together, opening these bottles and celebrating the history of Berry Bros & Rudd.

“I’ve spent 12 years working with Berry Bros, which is a third of my life. As I leave for pastures new next month, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the end of my time at Berry’s than to do a tasting in the company’s cellars with some incredible bottles and some incredible people.”

I’d like to say Jonny and I go way back, but that would be a lie. I think the first time he reached out was after an article I’d written, maybe 6 or 7 years ago. Jonny kindly complimented the piece, but also wanted to point out that not Cadenhead’s, but rather Berry Bros & Rudd was the oldest independent bottler of Scotch whisky. (And I think he might just be right about that.)

Then over the years we loosely stayed in touch, most recently on one of his pet projects, The Nordic Casks. It wasn’t until last year that we first met in person at the Whiskybase Gathering, where he immediately proceeded to show me pictures of old Berry Bros & Rudd labels and price lists. Earlier this year we shared a few pints in Edinburgh, but I believe that’s about the extent of our shared history.

And yet, Jonny invited me to attend his final tasting at Berry Bros & Rudd. I’m not going to second-guess why, but I’ve rarely felt like more of an imposter. There was so much whisky knowledge in one room. At times I couldn’t help but feel out of place. Sure, I learnt a thing or two over the years, but I can’t compete with the likes of Lora Hemy, Dave Broom, Angus Macraild, or Billy Abbot. Not to mention Ronnie Cox, who co-hosted the evening with Jonny.

I was in awe of hearing everyone describe the whiskies we were drinking. And I wanted to crawl into my shell when I was called upon by Jonny to share a few notes. I’m not even sure on which whisky anymore. Maybe the Highland Park. Could’ve been the Talisker. It seems like I’ve erased that moment from my memory. But I’ll never forget the whiskies nor the excellent company.

Usually, I write tasting notes in the comfort of my home, where I can shut out noise and focus. That’s why the notes below are less comprehensive than normal. And that’s also why I won’t score these whiskies. But I wanted to have a record of having tasted them, and share some thoughts or information on each.

berry bros & co scotch whisky 1900

Berry Bros & Co Scotch Whisky (abv unknown, bottled c.1900)

This bottle was part of a collection from a country house cellar in Cornwall, bought by some friends of Jonny. The labels had all fallen off, but there were little hints on some of them. The labels were degraded in different ways, leaving enough pieces to puzzle together that this was, indeed, an ancient bottle of whisky from Berry Bros & Co. (Not Berry Bros & Rudd, because that name has only been in use since the 1940s.)

Jonny said, “You can kind of guess it says Very Old Scotch Whisky. And on the earliest price list in our archives, which is from 1896 to 1909, there is a product on there that says Berry’s Very Old. This bottle has a driven cork, which would date it not much later than 1910. Otherwise were playing guesswork.”

According to Jonny, in those days Very Old actually meant very old. That means we were comfortably drinking whisky from the 1890s. Maybe even the 1870s. It was difficult to sort of wrap my mind around.

As far as tasting notes? There was this kind of gentle, soft coal smoke with subtle grains, minerals and a slight herbaciousness. Also some stone fruits. It was the oily, viscous mouthfeel that mostly stood out. Soot, cough syrup, diesel. All pretty industrial in a way. Although when nosing again after the tasting had ended (I had saved a small sip), there was this distinct suntan oil/coconut/pineapple kind-of-note.

Really though, while I can’t help but try and dissect a whisky like this, the best thing is to just let it come over you. Don’t think too much. Just enjoy. Which is actually what I tried to with each of these.

berry bros & rudd all malt

Berry Bros & Rudd All Malt (43%, OB, 1970s)

First off, the picture above is not entirely representative. It is of a 12-year-old version, while we tasted one without an age statement.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what is there to say about the contents of this bottle? There’s no known recipe for the specific one that we tried, but it was mentioned that some of the 1980s Berry’s All Malt contained entire butts of Talisker, Longmorn, Laphroaig and Glen Grant. Just insane stuff.

And to think that these didn’t even fetch that much at auction 5 or 6 years ago. To be fair, they still can sometimes be picked up for kind of an affordable price. Our Berry’s All Malt was almost textbook old-school, sherry-matured whisky. Yes, there was a bit of sulphur, but otherwise it was a concoction of rancio, mushrooms, tobacco and overripe mangos, as well as wax. Add a subtle smokiness to the palate, and I was all in.

Really all you need to know is that this could hold its own amongst all the other greats we tried afterwards. Not on the same level, but not as far removed as you might think.

springbank 168 35 years berry bros & rudd

Springbank 1968 35 Years (46%, Berry Bros & Rudd, 2003)

If I remember correctly, this bottle of Springbank originally came from the cellar of Ronnie Cox, Berry Bros & Rudd’s Brands Heritage Director and Jonny’s mentor at the company.

Springbank is legendary today, but maybe not as much when this was bottled 20 years ago. Regardless, it has always been a darling of the whisky nerds, a troupe I would consider myself part of. I’ve sparingly tried 1960s Springbank, so like all other whiskies we tasted during the evening, this presented another rare opportunity.

It was a bit flinty, slightly mineral and brought back memories of those moldy dunnage warehouses in Campbeltown. Some soft tropical notes also, and a very distant memory of peat. The palate was more of the same (in a very good way), but also gentle spices, fennel and petrol.

All in all not the best Springbank I’ve ever tried, which almost feels like heresy to write. But it’s true. Really good, yet far from the most memorable whisky of the evening.

highland park 1966 1979 st james label berry bros & rudd

Highland Park 1966/1979 St James’ label (75 proof, Berry Bros & Rudd)

I’d like to point out just how gorgeous this bottle is. It’s something I rarely do, and something that doesn’t really matter anyway, but in this case I thought I’d make an exception.

Introducing this Highland Park, Jonny said, “Gun to my head, Highland Park could be my favourite distillery. Or it could be Talisker. Or Laphroaig. But for these purposes, let’s say it is Highland Park. If you’ve never been, go immediately. It’s just a tremendous distillery. Really beautiful. Sandstone, old slate, nestled up top the on Kirkwall in just the most dramatic landscape in Scotland.”

I can’t say I entirely agree. Especially the landscape. Please don’t get mad, Jonny, but I prefer a multiple of places in Scotland over Kirkwall and Orkney. And the brand? I don’t know. However, the whisky has been growing on me. And the Highland Park 1966 was just world-class.

Turfy, herbascious, rooty and hessian, but also warm beach sand, gravel and wax. The palate was much sweeter than I expected. I suppose you could say heather honey and Demerara sugar, but also a dry peat influence. The finish? All I’ve scribbled down is “long.”

talisker 1974 6268 berry bros & rudd

Talisker 1974/2001 (43%, Berry Bros & Rudd, C#6268)

I’ve been privy to some excellent Talisker over the years. This one always comes to mind, not in the least because I still have a bottle stashed away somewhere. But there are many more sublime examples.

This Talisker 1974 from Berry Bros & Rudd highlighted all the good things about the distillery. It was classic Talisker, and even at ‘just’ 43% surprisingly powerful. Hints of smoked mackerel, plenty of sherry, some linseed oil and stewed pears, but also citrus notes and all kinds of polished. Cherry oak too (and no, that’s not a typo).

There was undeniably some white pepper on the palate, flinty smoke, pebbles and minerals. And lest I forget, a lovely oily mouthfeel. This might just be my preferred style of whisky, although I don’t want to speak too soon.

laphroaig 1977 5081 berry bros & rudd

Laphroaig 1977/1999 (43%, Berry Bros & Rudd, C#5081)

“So, the best whisky ever made, without a shadow of a doubt, is 1950s and 1960s Islay. There is no debate about that. If anyone ever tells me the best whisky made in some ways is not 1950s or 1960s Islay, it’s because they haven’t tried it. They’re wrong.”

A strong statement by Jonny. Then again, I think anyone who’s ever been lucky to taste 1960s Bowmore or 1950s Laphroaig would agree. That fruity character is unlike anything else. It sometimes carries through in 1970s distillate – which is the case here.

Surprisingly, some enthusiasts on Whiskybase rate this fairly low and even mention soapiness, which is not at all what I got from Jonny’s bottle. I think Angus Macraild described it best when he mentioned Laphroaig’s three-pronged flavor profile. Coastal, peat and tropical fruit. And bags of it.

This was a whisky without too much oak influence, really letting the Laphroaig distillate shine. And really making me rethink my statement from just a few paragraphs ago. This kind of flavour profile… My god.

Final Thoughts

Really, there’s not much more I want to say, or can say, other than thanking Jonny for inviting me. It was a privilege. I really look forward to one day visiting Kythe Distillery. And I can’t wait for your 80th anniversary tasting in 2067.

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