Just a few weeks ago, GlenAllachie 10 Years Cask Strength Batch 4 was named the World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards. I was supposed to be judging the awards, but a nasty cold threw a spanner in the works. By chance I had a sample of Batch 4 laying around, giving me the opportunity to review the GlenAllachie 10 Years Cask Strength after all.
I don’t subscribe as much to the importance of oak as many in the whisky industry seem to. Certainly I’m convinced by its importance, but I cringe whenever I see someone repeat that old industry trope, where it’s presented as fact that the wood is responsible for about 70% of a whisky’s flavour. Instead, I wholeheartedly agree with this quote from Mark Reynier: “Instead of saying 70 percent of flavour comes from the wood, what you should say is that 100 percent of whisky’s flavour is influenced by its time in wood.”
But looking at the development that GlenAllachie has gone through since it was acquired by Billy Walker, you also can’t deny the magic of oak maturation. Before Walker entered its stage, Glenallachie (yes, without the capital A back then) was just another blendfiller. It was never a very distinctive single malt with an outspoken flavour profile. Lightness was the main characteristic of Glenallachie, as it is for many distilleries founded during the 1960s. Being inoffensive seemed to be the whisky’s main goal. Although Walker might not completely agree there. “GlenAllachie is not a shy Speyside whisky”, he told me when I spoke to him last year. “It’s a rather full-bodied spirit so it can actually handle some highly-flavored wood very well.”
Since taking over he has lengthened the distillery’s fermentation times considerably (up to 140 hours, if I remember correctly). It gives the new make a fruitier, sturdy quality. But it will be years before the new style of GlenAllachie spirit is mature. So, it’s the light, inoffensive spirit of the previous owners Billy Walker has had to work with so far. And he has done so admirably, in large part thanks to his deep understanding of whisky maturation.
“The challenge for all blenders is monitoring the development of the spirit in these various casks. To make sure that you don’t overcook it and capture it right at the sweet point of the interface between the flavor and the spirit. I’m always looking for the sweet point. It depends on the cask, the microclimate. There are many things that contribute. The only way to determine that is to religiously sample and follow the development of the spirit in these casks.”
When Walker & Co took over GlenAllachie, they also inherited tens of thousands of casks. They had to get intimately involved in understanding the shape of the inventory. They knew the volumes and ages, and also what types of casks were part of the inventory. Since then, Walker has been busy trying to grasp exactly how the spirit interacts with various styles of wood. Not just bourbon and sherry, but all sorts of cask types. Including some off the beaten path.
“The different styles of virgin oak wood are very interesting. Like Chinquapin, which is a Missouri style oak giving the spirit a uniquely clovey, licorice and anise note to the spirit. These casks are very expensive, incidentally. We are also very keen to get a hold of some Eastern Russian oak and with a little bit of luck we’ll manage to get access to some reasonably priced Mizunara casks.”
But it’s sherry-matured whisky that Walker is mostly known for, thanks to his time managing GlenDronach. And he’s not just buying sherry seasoned casks, like much of the industry is. Instead, he tries to gets his hands on true solera casks when he can. As such, he competes with a number of other fans of solera casks, including Patrick van Zuidam of the Dutch Millstone whiskies. These casks are rare as hens teeth, usually only becoming available when a sherry bodega goes out of business or desperately needs money. But they make for a flavour profile you’ll rarely encounter.
“Some of the newer sherry casks deliver some fantastically alive, interesting and complex flavors. The older solera casks you have to be much more patient with. These are for the long haul. They’re very difficult to get. It’s just getting the balance right between solera casks and more recently seasoned casks. They both work really well, but it’s just striking the right balance.”
The GlenAllachie 10 Years Cask Strength Batch 4 showcases Walker’s creativity. He’s not just used Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry puncheons, but has also added some virgin oak casks to the mix. And he’s not just following the same recipe for each batch, demonstrated by the inclusion of Rioja casks in Batch 5 and Batch 6.
GlenAllachie 10 Years Cask Strength Batch 4 (56.1%, OB, 2020)
Nose: Lots of raisins, prunes and dates with touches of apricots and chocolate truffles. Soft notes of tobacco, menthol and cinnamon, but also cherry syrup. Finally some gentle ginger and a whiff of saw dust.
Taste: Sticky mouthfeel. Plenty of dried fruit again (mostly figs and dates), but also redcurrant marmalade, treacle and a good amount of star anise. There’s a spicy element here too, with some cracked black pepper corns, cloves and nutmeg. Whiff of milk chocolate and oak.
Finish: Bitter orange peel, but the spices remain. A soft note of cocoa powder too.
Is it actually the World’s Best Single Malt? Well, I’m not going to try and argue with the many skillful judges of the World Whiskies Awards. But I noticed one of the other entries was the Benromach 21 Years, which I love. So no, to me this GlenAllachie is not the World’s Best. But to you it might very well be.
Good luck tracking down a bottle. I doubt you’ll find one online, but maybe there are a few available in a store somewhere.
Photo: The Whisky Exchange
I’ve always been skeptical of the World Whiskies Awards. At best, there are only a handful of distilleries represented each year. More accurately, it’s the best whisky that was submitted for consideration.
Absolutely, but that’s the case with any spirits competition. None of them is perfect.