Aberfeldy, Craigellachie, Royal Brackla, (Glen) Deveron and Aultmore. With the possible exception of the first these are not single malts most non-enthusiast consumers will have ever heard of. This is not strange. They are all part of the Bacardi stable and until very recently the loudest whisky-related noise by far from that company was reserved for their blended offerings: William Lawson’s and Dewar’s. Recently though, this changed with the announcement of a full OB range for all five of these distilleries.
Lately, I find myself in the position of getting invites to press presentations of new whiskies. This is a whole subclass of tastings which many people never get to see. Like your regular old tasting, these can be good, decent or bad (though when bad, they tend to be extremely so, with hollow marketing-filled stories that fall apart at the first slightly probing question).
Luckily we were in for a treat this afternoon as the tasting was conducted by Stephen Marshall, Global Marketing Manager – Whisky for Bacardi and (as we learned) the man who had single-handedly put single malts back in the spotlight at his employer. The location was a small museum of rarities in the center of Amsterdam, which added an interesting vibe to the proceedings. I say tasting, and we did taste the whiskies in the end, but it was mainly a long (and interesting!) lecture on the process of getting these malts to market interspersed with personal quotes. At several moments his candid comments on the industry and his own company caused what is a sure sign you’re at a good presentation of this kind: fidgeting and pained looks from the Dutch Bacardi PR people in the crowd.
The selection and branding of the whiskies had to be done from the ground up, and were approached with a mixture of cold business sense (I paraphrase: “If you don’t have enough stock to sell something at 46%, sell it at 40%” and “We need a malt which appeals to those people who like interesting stories but aren’t that bothered about taste”) and passion for the product / historic interest. For the latter, they obtained a large number of oral histories from people who had worked or were still working at the distilleries, which gave a great depth of stories to draw from. For the former, the decision was made to use no caramel (and gradually remove it from Aberfeldy) and use only age statements. No NAS here. (Again, our host had some PR-busting opinions on the NAS trend which I can summarize as “NAS is not cool and the reasons for using it are often disingenuous”).
Quite a few of the malts will be finished in some way (the entire line for Royal Brackla will be sherry-finished, once it comes out next summer), which goes a way towards explaining why Bacardi is so late to the whiskyboom-table. I got the impression another reason was that Marshall (interestingly a former SMWS employee) had a pretty tough time convincing the management that undertaking such a large scale project was feasible. The extra time spent, though, has at the very least delivered some of the better looking bottle designs available today (in my opinion).
I’ve rambled on for too long, so here are your first impression tasting notes for the 4 malts we got to taste:
Aberfeldy 12yo Herbal, sweet and honeyed in the nose. Spicy in the taste. Slightly boring, middle of the road. Pleasant, and most likely the whisky a beginner would prefer out of all of them. Disappointing for me though, as I adore the 21yo.
Aultmore 12yo Greasy, butterscotch, but still quite light and fresh. Reminds me of a softer spoken young Clynelish. The freshness continues into the taste, where the absence of a spirity edge reveals that it is indeed a little older than the first impression would suggest.
Deveron 12yo From MacDuff distillery. Quite similar to the Aultmore, but with a rounder, sweeter taste. One could easily see these two malts coming from the same distillery. At the tasting I slightly preferred the Deveron, but I would like to sit down with both of them properly at some point to find the subtle notes which I no doubt missed.
Craigellachie 13yo Subtle is not a word which appears in this malt’s vocabulary. In fact: if a beginning whisky drinker would ask me what whisky to get to learn to taste sulfur, this is now at the top of my list. Meaty, sulfury, big-bodied, this is a bruiser. At first the sulfur is too much even for my trained palate, but after a while it subsides, revealing the beginnings of tropical fruit. I hope to be able to taste the 17 and 23 soon, in which I would hope to find that hint of fruit blooming into a veritable salad.