While much of modern whisky making focuses on the cask and the age of a whisky, it can be incredibly rewarding to look beyond the oak to the spirit beneath. With this tasting, we dive deep into distillery character and look at what makes these old whiskies so special. A celebration of pure, characterful, idiosyncratic distillates.
In the very earliest days of whisky history, the predecessors of modern malt were rough and ready spirits – clear in colour and often requiring a little sweeting or flavouring to help them down. The advent of cask maturation was a significant step on the journey from these humble beginnings to the whisky we know and love today.
However, it’s true to say that well into the 20th century distilleries across Scotland relied more on the character of their spirit than the flavours afforded by oak casks. One of the real draws of old and rare whisky is that the raw distillate at its core is often more expressive than its present-day counterparts. The bottlings chosen for this session are young, often high strength, and bottled in their natural form with minimal intervention. Each one displays the bare bones of their respective distillery characteristics in beautiful detail. It's a style that is unashamedly geeky and shines a light on the nuts and bolts of old school whisky making.
This set contains a 1cl sample of each of the following whiskies.
Blair Athol 8 Year Old, Distillery Bottling, 80º Proof UK
Angus MacRaild – These bottlings are benchmark examples of naked, old-style, distillate-driven Highland malt whisky. This is one of the earlier batches and these pale, young, often refill-matured examples of Blair Athol at a solid 80º proof are exemplary of the legendary production eras of the late 1940s/early 1950s.
Old Pulteney, Cadenhead, 1960s, 85º Proof UK
Angus MacRaild – These early Cadenhead bottlings are almost always stunning examples of vividly old style, historic malt whisky, often presented at higher ABVs and from plain wood. This Pulteney is pale and at the fascinating ABV of 48.5%. It's a dram I've wanted to try ever since I first saw this bottling, and Pulteney from this era should be comfortably 1950s' distillate and proper old style highland malt, so it's very exciting to include it in this class.
Glen Grant 8 Year Old, Gordon & MacPhail, 100º Proof UK
Angus MacRaild - A naked distillate class would not be complete without an old 100º proof Glen Grant. Pale, high ABV and with a well-preserved level, this should be a proper time capsule and a clear window on one of the most beautiful of distillates: old-style Glen Grant.
Glenfarclas 8 Year Old, Distillery Bottling, 100º Proof UK
Angus MacRaild – Everyone knows the much darker and iconic series of 8-year-old 105 proof bottlings. However, this paler 100º proof version is much rarer and should offer a fascinating take on Glenfarclas's famously weighty distillate from this older production era.
Balvenie 1975, Bot.1985, Robert Watson, 57.1%
Angus MacRaild – Balvenie distilled in this era was a much fatter, waxier style of malt, much more 'old highlands' in character than it is today. These rarely seen Robert Watson bottlings are always a brilliant window into that distillate style. Often young examples at cask strength, they're the closest we can get to tasting these historic Balvenie distillate styles as they were at the time of production and bottling.
Port Ellen 10 Year Old, Signatory, 58.4% ABV
Angus MacRaild – So much focus is heaped upon the older Port Ellen bottlings that we often overlook the younger ones. These bottles give lie to the notion that Port Ellen was closed for issues around quality. These natural strength, younger bottlings from Signatory are a powerful demonstration of the purity, power and charisma that Port Ellen could display in youth.
Blair Athol 8yo 80 proof UK
Old Pulteney, Bot.1960s Cadenhead's, 48.6%
Glen Grant 8yo Gordon & MacPhail, 100 proof UK
Glenfarclas 8yo 100 proof UK
Balvenie 1975 10yo, Robert Watson, 57.5%
Port Ellen 10yo Bottling No.2, Signatory