That’s an odd title I have chosen, I could change it but I’ve started typing now and there are far more important things afoot on this post. If you are into whisky then I suspect you will, like me, take pleasure in the variety it offers, the peaks and troughs, the oddities, surprises and the occasionally sublime. Every now and then good fortune seems to come around in the form of an incredibly memorable whisky. Whisky can be memorable for all kinds of things, it’s devastating hideousness, it’s palpitation inducing beauty, the moment it captures, the company it is shared with or the memory it evokes. Emotion of some sort is inevitably wedded to these most memorable of drinking occasions. I’ve had technically sublime drams that just can’t quite match the slightly unbalanced yet wildly loveable personalities of other more unusual whiskies. Today we’ll have a few drams that, for me, are the epitome of what whisky is all about and why I love it. They stand for me as monuments to just how great, thrilling, delicious, emotional and truly valuable whisky can be. These whiskies originate with my friend and geek in law Phil, who recently purchased a rather epic stash of old bottles at a country house sale in Cornwall. The sale included the contents of the old cellar, amongst the rather stunning array of old Madeiras and wines from Berry Brothers there was also a stack of old whiskies, not to mention the odd bottle of sherry and rum as well. Phil dutifully sold one of his livers and bought all the spirits. Fast forward about a month and we sit during a quiet night at the bar in Dornoch Castle Hotel, the place is run by Phil and his brother Simon. If you’re a regular on facebook you may know them as the ‘Whisky Collector’, they are notable for their habit of unashamedly, and rather blatantly, flaunting every single old bottle of whisky that passes their way on the Malt Manaics page as well as their own. Not to mention the occasional bit of trolling on the official Macallan page, but the less said about that the better. Not all bottles have been opened so far and no doubt more notes will appear here as time passes and these bottles are opened, for now here are notes for the first bottles. Apologies in advance for any overtly sentimental gushing or excessive maltporn, you wish to have that brigade thing of Serge’s on standby…
Berry Brothers Whisky/Calvados/Armagnac/Rum??? Bottled circa 1920s. Driven cork. No label. Level was in the neck.
This was the first bottle we opened. At first I felt it was a youngish blend that had benefitted heavily from such a length of time in the bottle. However, when we tasted them with our good friend Emmanuel from the Auld Alliance in Singapore who happened to be visiting Scotland a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned that it may well be an old Calvados or some other similar wood aged spirit. So, the upshot is…we don’t know exactly what this is, not useful but it should make for an interesting tasting, lets see what gives with a fresh palate and open mind….
Colour: Orangey gold
Nose: I just cannot get this idea of Calvados out of my head now, the nose is laced with apples at first, when I had originally tried this we noted that there was a distinct green appley note, however I took this as a sign of a more pronounced grain component which is often typical. Now that the spirit has had time to breathe however this apple note is far more elegant and complex, notes of aged cider, baked apples in brown sugar then touches of nutmeg, demerara (could it be a rum?) a gentle but pronounced medicinal quality, like tiny notes of mercurochrome, germoline and metal polish. Goes on with beautiful notes of figs, raisins, coal fires, very delicate wax, wet leaves, hessian and pine resin with touches of camphor and lamp oil. I think we’ve ruled out rum. What a beautiful nose, so delicate but also balanced and wonderfully complex.
Palate: It’s amazing how much bite there is after almost a century. I think the proof is in the palate with this one, straight away we there are big, really biting notes of russet apples, demerara rum, brown bread, cinnamon, pear cider, touches of animal skins and leather with a very gentle meatiness. Seems to develop a hint of cardboard but then moves away and gets very minty and zingy with notes of blood orange, eucalyptus and citrus peel. Now a little dusty, waxy and metallic, typical OBE notes but all perfectly formed and present in a way that really informs and adds to the overall quality. This would probably have been quite a basic spirit when it was bottled, there is not a huge wood influence. Even though we know glass ageing softens woodiness this really does still bear the hallmarks of its inherent youth. Gets slightly salty and sharp with more apple peelings and touches of cinnamon.
Finish: Excellent length for such an ancient and fragile spirit. Leafy, drying, many apple notes, more stewed raisin notes, moss, wet earth, tcp and touches of mint.
Comments: My vote is with Calvados to be honest. The bite of the spirit on the palate is really reminiscent of a good youngish Calvados and those apple notes that rear their heads all over the place also point towards such a conclusion. Almost certainly no way to know for sure but I also don’t really care, the fragile beauty and elegance of this spirit is what really shines out. It’s amazing how you can sort of tell what parts were really enhanced by bottle ageing. Anyway, heartbreaking old stuff, and that was just the start, it’s about to get even worse…
Berry Brother’s & Co. Very Old Scotch Whisky. Dumpy bottle. Circa 1914. Driven cork. Label destroyed. Level was in the neck.
This was the second bottle we opened. Berry Brother’s did not add the ‘Rudd’ part of their name until after 1914, prior to that it was Berry Bros & Co, so the label gives a good indication that this is indeed a very old high end whisky bottled around the time of the First World War. That would suggest high malt content blend or straight vatted malt distilled probably around the late 1880s/early 1890s. I know I know…I’m sorry.
Nose: Oh dear, where to begin… I suppose the first impression is a big canvas of wax, hessian, various oils, farmyard notes, camphor, wet earth, coal, clay, dusty phenols, old, metallic peat notes with tiny glimmers of green fruits in the background. These simmering peat qualities are actually reminiscent of a very old Ardbeg in some ways, like a lightly peated 60s Ardbeg perhaps. Goes on with really deft medical touches, linseed oil, tcp, bandages, iodine, old rope, metal polish and minerals. Ancient herbal liqueurs, a really old juane chartreuse, touches of caraway and orange bitters. It’s a heartbreaking nose to be honest with you, I should really stop writing…
Palate: Fat, glycerol peat, hay, straw, dust, metal polish, a ton of wax, coal, peat embers, muesli, wet grains, smoked fish like kippers and then little squeezes of lemon juice and wet pebbles. You can feel it has softened in the bottle but the presence, warmth and weight of this stuff in the mouth is really quite incredible, the closest thing I can compare it to would be the old 1930s White Horse or the 1940s Mackie’s. Other than that there’s not much to compare this stuff to, it’s a style even further removed from what we would ordinarily call ‘old style’. So beautiful. Goes on with touches of mint, jasmine, oriental spices and big orange liqueur notes. Still beautifully biting.
Finish: Long, metallic, minty, waxy, sweetly phenolic and resinous with this beautifully fat but complex peat quality, it’s a style of peat really completely extinct in any modern whisky of the last 50 years I’d say. Dried herbs, cured meat, some gentle spices and waxy old mineral notes in the end.
Comments: What can you really say about such Whisky. This is how they made them in the late 19th century I suppose. I couldn’t tell you if it was a blend or a straight malt, my feeling is that it is probably a high malt content blend but again, who cares, the complexity, elegance and mesmeric flavour profile are in another stratosphere from most of today’s malts. Hard to really find enough ways to describe the beauty and privilege that lies in tasting such ancient whisky. No doubt the +/-100 years in bottle helped it along but it’s remarkable how well intact it is.
Berry’s Fine Old Scotch Whisky. Possibly All Malt? Circa 1914. Driven cork. Level top shoulder but had leaked in transit the day before.
This one was a latecomer thanks to a mistake by the auction house and upon arrival it was apparent that it had leaked slightly so we dutifully shouldered the burden of opening it. (I know, I’m such a git) This is the one that is most likely to be 100% malt, although whether single or vatted? Who knows? The label fragment it still bears is almost identical in style to another Berry Bros & Co bottle we found from another auction so once again it dates this bottle to around 1914.
Colour: Light gold
Nose: The first impression is just a big fat nostril full of peat oil, pine resin and camphor. This fleshes out quite quickly into really fresh mint leaf, wet earth, dunnage, crystallised fruits, marzipan, touches of air freshener but in a really good way. Loads of oils, wax, old polished furniture, old books, leather, caraway liqueur, dried herbs, old chartreuse, coal fires and a little crusty salty note. Absolutely sublime and quite different to the others in many ways, this is much richer, fatter and more luxurious in its resilient, oily peat qualities. This certainly ‘feels’ more like a malt. There are no notes that suggest any grain component. These huge resinous touches are just astounding quite frankly. Also notes of fresh paint, a lovely mineral quality and hessian, butter and flints.
Palate: Huge attack, fat, farmy and full of greasy, oily phenols, camphor, olive oil, caraway, muesli. Touches of wax jackets, motor oil, leather, wood spice, wax, paraffin, tcp, some raisins, more mint, mentholated toothpaste, Madeira cake, liquorice and more ancient herbal liqueur notes. Quite bewilderingly beautiful. Metal polish, old coins, touches of OBE again but in the most beautiful way, a wonderfully complex and subdivided peat flavour. Some resinous citrus fruits, nervous notes of wildflowers, some grass, crushed coriander seeds and a little pancetta. This is huge, bold and completely different whisky, unlike anything I think I’ve ever tasted.
Finish: Herbal, resinous, waxy, long, minty, phenolic, peaty, thick, syrupy and full of honey, yellow flowers, chamomile tea, coal smoke and minerals. Beautiful.
Comments: I think this must be a malt, probably a vatted malt as would have been popular at the time but who knows. It’s not like any whisky I’ve ever tried before, the closest semblance of character lies in these other Berry’s bottlings but they too are of a truly ancient time. The only other thing that springs to mind is the old Lagavulin 12yo Spring Cap 1958 rotation. Not because they taste similar but because they are both so utterly different from any other whisky I could try. What a wonderful whisky and a unique privilege.
Who wants to stop after that…? Not me, lets have something else from a looooong time ago. We opened this one very recently as well.
Greer’s OVH blended whisky circa 1930. No strength or capacity stated. Stopper cork.
This was part of a parcel of 12 bottles we acquired as part of our wee drinking cabal known as the ‘Glug Glug Club’ (yes we know we’re cool). The company that produced this owned St Magdalene distillery at the time and it is most likely that this was the constituent malt for this blend.
Nose: Another sublimely antique cocktail of metal polish, old resinous peat, apple peelings, wax, crystalised fruits, smoked tea, minerals and lemon oil. Goes on with al the usual suspects of hessian, dried herbs, wild mushrooms, dunnage, kreel nets, tar and menthol. More compact and focused than the others perhaps hinting at a little more design in its construction maybe. It certainly feels more ‘blended’ although the grain component is incredibly quiet, it must have had a significantly high malt content. Or the 80 or so years in bottle have brought all the malt components to the fore and kind of subdued the harsher angles, who knows… It’s beautiful regardless.
Palate: Once again great weight and attack on the palate, their is a kind of dusty green apple not at the back which suggest the grain component is a little louder on the palate but for the most part its more of these wonderfully nervous notes of metal, wax, peat oils, drying phenols, minerals, pine resin, barley sugar, dried mint leaf, all kinds of other herbs, cereals and butter. Still very fat and weighty if a little lighter than some of the others. Develops notes of tincture and iodine, the peat is very distinct in this one. White fruits and touches of rapeseed oil now as well.
Finish: Not as long as some of these magnificent Berry’s bottlings but still beautifully resinous, gravelly, mineral, peaty, oily and even with touches of green fruits still after all these years. Incredible stuff.
Comments: What’s to say? Another stunning old blend. It’s nice to think that there was a fair old dollop of St Magdalene in this one. It’s amazing how great these old bottles can be if you get one with a decent level.
I should point out that all these drams can be tried by the glass at the bar in Dornoch Castle Hotel. Phil and Simon are running a ‘Whisky Deal For Whisky People’ this winter if you fancy snuggling up in a great Scottish whisky bar this winter. Apparently they have a few hundred bottles that need drinking up and they’re flogging them off at knock down prices. I will probably be along to hoover a few up at some point.
That’s probably enough madness for today. But we’ll return to the 19th century very soon…