What’s all this about Empires & Underdogs?

Hi there Whisky Fans of Bristol!

One of the things we thought might be nice to start doing would be to write a little bit up here about our tasting sessions as we go, so people who couldn’t make it can have a bit of a look and also so people who *did* make it can come back and re-live the highlights & remind themselves of some of the finer points of the discussion. We’ve not done this before, so we’ll see how we go, eh?

Our tasting on October 24th was titled Empires vs Underdogs, and the idea was for it to be a comparative tasting of official distillery releases from the companies that own the distillery contrasted against an independently-bottled whisky from that same distillery, all selected and presented by our very own Jason B. Standing.

The opening pair came from a distillery not widely known by UK whisky drinkers – Glen Ord. Though it’s one of the largest distilleries in Scotland, as a single malt it’s rarely seen these days outside of Asia/Far East – where it’s bottled as The Singleton of Glen Ord (which we had the 12yo variant of), by its owning company, Diageo. So, about as “Empire” as you can get… and to contrast to that – a single-cask bottle of Glen Ord selected by Thompson Brothers Distillers, also 12 years old. The whisky, that is – not the Thompson Brothers. They’re a 2-man operation running a teeny weeny little distillery up in Dornoch and they absolutely love whisky, so a cask selected by them whilst potentially not resembling the “house style” will always be packed with flavour – and this example (finished in a Koval bourbon cask) displayed a viscous texture and desserty notes which divided the crowd, but won massive favour among those who were in the “aye” column.

Moving on to the second pairing we enjoyed 2 whiskies from Orkney – starting with the nearly bulletproof Highland Park 18yo. A firm and ever-present favourite in the B. Standing household, its elegant heathery notes, gentle sweetness, and with a wisp of light smoke mean that it’s a whisky with depth and sophistication which seldom overwhelms the palate towards any extreme resulting in a real crowdpleaser. Contrasted here again was an indie single-cask: the 17yo Orkney Single Malt from Britain’s oldest wine & spirit merchants, Berry Brothers & Rudd. Not officially described as a Highland Park, we do know it comes from Orkney and were reliably told by one insider that “It’s not from Scapa”. Unusually for a single cask bottling, once a little water was added to settle down the wild ride, the lineage from this one cask through to its companion single malt bottling was mostly visible (or at least very believeable).

Much of the discussion on the evening was centred around what it is an Independent Bottler does, what sort of sized company it is, and why they do what they do – with the answers to those questions varying wildly. Comparing Thompson Brothers to Berry Brothers & Rudd, for example, would be to try to draw conclusions & similarities between 2 youngish chaps distilling in a Victorian fire station in the north of Scotland, and another family-run company – albeit one that’s been trading out of the same London shopfront since 1698.

We also extensively talked about single-cask bottlings – where they bottle one individual cask of whisky – and compared them with an Official Bottling which would usually be a vatting together of several casks into a single malt.

Finally, Jason revealed that he wasn’t of a mind to trick anyone this time around – showing us “27.99 – Vital Spark docks in Campbeltown” from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society up against an officially bottled single malt (cask strength though, this time) from contrarians Springbank Distillery (Springbank 12yo Cask Strength). Partially selected because Jason thought the extra smoke in this would excite a few people, but also because he’d made a New Year’s Resolution to enjoy more Springbank this year. And October seemed the right time to start! Springbank is a fairly small distiller in the scheme of things – producing up to 750,000 litres of alcohol a year (compared to Glen Ord’s 11 million!), and its mailing list of enthusiasts is sometimes described as a small cult… so whether or not that puts it on equal footing with the SMWS – a private members club with around 30,000 members in 19 countries which bottles all manner of whisky but primarily single cask, single malt Scotch whisky – is an exercise for the reader.

In the end this was a lovely little lineup – because at the concluding show of hands we realised that everyone had picked a different favourite, but all were very promotional about the one that they’d picked… and it wasn’t an easy job making the choice!

If you’d like to come to one of our tastings, you’d be most welcome – all you need is an interest in whisky (or in learning a bit more about it: which we’re more than happy to help with). Pop on to our Upcoming Events page and get involved!

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