So much is made of the influence of oak on whisky, that the raw distillate that goes into a cask is sometimes overlooked. At least, that’s what host Billy Abbot of the Naked Distillate Masterclass said during the online Whisky Show Old & Rare. The importance of it simply seems to be overlooked at times.
That’s why Angus MacRaild had selected six different bottlings the from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that are distillate driven. Together with Lora Hemy, of Diageo’s St. James Gate and Roe & Co, they discussed the virtues of these older style distillates. You can view their discussion on The Whisky Exchange’s Facebook page, which I highly recommend if you’ve got 90 minutes to spare.
I was graciously invited to participate in this Naked Distillate Masterclass, one of five masterclasses held over the weekend during the Whisky Show Old & Rare. Below are my thoughts on the whiskies that were included, such as Blair Athol, Old Pulteney (a personal favourite), Glenfarclas, Glen Grant, Balvenie and Port Ellen.
While I’ve rated each whisky this Naked Distillate Masterclass was almost more of an academic exhibition. It was about enjoying whisky, as it should be, but it also gave a rare insight into old practices (and preferences) of distillers.
Blair Athol 8 Years (80º Proof, OB)
An official bottling from the early 1960s, possibly the late 1950s, bottled at 80º Proof (45.8%). There’s quite a few versions of this bottling, according to Angus. He says early batches like this one are a great introduction to distillate forward whisky, but also to older style distillery bottlings. They generally express more distillery and distillate character, and leaned less heavily on active wood. There’d still be floor maltings, direct-fired stills and worm tubs at Blair Athol at this point.
It’s light and floral (green tomatoes and violets) with a fruity sweetness and toffee. I wouldn’t be surprised if this comes from inactive refill sherry casks. There’s sugared cereals, leather and a tinge of honey on the palate, accompanied by some cracked black pepper and an assortment of sweet orchard fruits and chalk. The finish isn’t the longest. A decent enough whisky, that clearly fits an older profile (although I would think partly because of 60+ years of bottle ageing). Won’t blow your mind, but makes for an interesting glass.
Old Pulteney (85º Proof, Cadenhead’s, 1960s)
A no-age-statement Old Pulteney by Cadenhead’s bottled at 85º Proof (48.5%). So, completely naked Pulteney that should be distilled in the 1950s. Really exciting for me as an Old Pulteney fan and whisky geek to taste something like this.
Easily the lightest in colour of the bunch. This initially reminds me of artisinal tequila. Really green but with lemon pith, stone fruits, wet pebbles and hemp rope. Some salinity as well, which puts it in the same realm as modern Pulteney. Plenty of white pepper, chalk, more minerals and a pinch of salt on the palate. Light citrus notes, some yeastiness and maybe a touch of laurel. Lingering fruits on the finish. It’s more mellow than current Pulteney, but I would attribute that to bottle ageing. Fascinating single malt with a soul.
Glen Grant 8 Years (100º Proof, Gordon & MacPhail)
No Old & Rare tasting is complete without an old Glen Grant, or so thinks Angus. He loves this distillery because it works at various ages and in all kinds of cask types. (And I would agree with him that most every older Glen Grant I’ve tried is excellent). This is bottled by Gordon & MacPhail in the early 1970s at 100º Proof (57.1%).
I find it rather closed at first nosing, but it doesn’t take long for it to show its colours. There’s some notes of burlap, pollen and banana peel with an interesting oiliness, creaminess and grassiness. Also a whiff of moss and bread dough. The palate is outstanding. Fantastic mouthfeel. Incredibly waxy, fatty and honeyed flowers with some crisp minerals and subtle spices. A whiff of mint and soot as well. Fantastic.
Glenfarclas 8 Years (100º Proof, OB)
Quite a rare bottling. The old Glenfarclas 105 bottlings are mostly quite heavily sherried. But this Glenfarclas 8 Years 100º Proof bottling (from the mid 1970s) is quite pale. Clearly not as much sherry influence as Glenfarclas is known for. A chance to explore a more naked version of Glenfarclas. I remember an early 1980s (but much older than today’s whisky) Family Casks release that had clearly been matured in an inactive cask which I enjoyed very much.
I immediately get notes of copper and sour touches followed by mellow fruity aromas. A sort of dirty profile you’d today might only find in Ben Nevis or Tobermory. There’s an earthy note here as well, accompanied by a touch of porridge, honey and herbal orange. The palate is much more barley-driven but with touches of beeswax, almonds, honey, black pepper and dried apricots. Just a hint of dried mint there in the finish. Another excellent (and greatly preserved) old stule single malt.
Balvenie 1975 (57.5%, Robert Watson, 1985)
Robert Watson was on old Scottish merchant bottler in Aberdeen. They’re fairly unknown (I hadn’t heard of them before). There’s not a whole lot of entries on Whiskybase, with about half of them whiskies from Balvenie. It seems there must’ve been some sort of connection between the distillery and bottler, but that’s just speculation on my part.
Concentrated with some minerals, but there’s a lovely fruity profile in the background with lemons, a slight waxiness and vanilla pods. Quite intense with a peppery punch. The palate is rather incredible. Mouthfeel is oily. Superbly waxy again, but with a pinch of white pepper, honey and sweet malt. Some subtle herbal notes too (mainly fried sage). Finish is long with more of the same. Maybe a bit less polished than the Glenfarclas and Glen Grant, but really good all the same.
Port Ellen 10 Years (58.4%, Signatory Vintage, 1994)
And the finally, a Port Ellen. By far the youngest I’ve ever tried. A 10-year-old Port Ellen from Signatory Vintage. It’s so rare to try Port Ellen in general, let alone such a young expression. Incredibly light in colour, which is to be expected during a Naked Distillate tasting.
There’s some copper, green olives, sauerkraut and rhubarb, but also kerosine, a bit of iodine and charcoal. Subtle smoky and farmy touches, wool, ashes and leather. Some pebbles as well. There’s a lot going on here. Plenty of ash on the palate, but also an interesting smoky sweetness, a touch of tar and quite an oily mouthfeel. It certainly doesn’t come across as young as it actually is. Some lemon sherbet and rubber tires as well. Fantastically developed, polished and intense at the same time.
I found the Old Pulteney by far the most interesting and fascinating whisky. That’s certainly also because I’m very partial and intimately familiar with their single malts. It was probably as close to 1950s style new make as possible. And while it was incredibly naked and raw, it also showed some fascinating similarities to modern-style Pulteney.
In terms of overall takeaways, this Old & Rare Whisky Show masterclass mostly confirmed that the waxy profile that shown through in the Balvenie, Glenfarclas and Glen Grant, was indeed much more prevalent in the olden days. You can still find it today, most consistently in Clynelish, but usually not in whisky that is (less than) a decade old.
It’s this mouthfeel that is so incredibly important to my enjoyment of a whisky, but something that seems to be overlooked in many modern releases.