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Auchentoshan (pronounced: ock-en-TOSH-an) is one of the bigger names in malt whisky and one of the very few remaining Scottish distilleries to practice triple distillation as a standard procedure in its production. It can be something of a divisive malt due to the delicacy of its character. Some laud its soft and elegant malty, cereal, pear flesh characteristics while others condemn it as a thin and flavour light spirit with little character, nothing more than a blend substitute. While both arguments are understandable, neither is quite right. Auchentoshan is a relatively distinctive make due to the rigors of triple distillation and something of a fascinating spirit to investigate more closely.
Stills: 1 Wash 1 Middle 1 Spirit
Capacity: 1.65 Million Litres
Water Source: Loch Cochno
1969-Present: Journey in to the mainstream
Like many other distilleries Auchentoshan was never really available as a single malt before the early seventies when it came under the ownership of Eadie Cairns Ltd. There is also a notable absence of it from any of the early independent bottlers thus making it hard for us to know what old style Auchentoshan was really like. The distillery was renovated between 1969 and 1970, during this time much of the old equipment like the worm tubs were replaced with their modern counterparts. However, in general Auchentoshan has remained remarkably unchanged compared to other distilleries. Triple distillation in its unique three still setup has always been standard practice at the distillery, as has the rule of using unpeated barley. The results being that Auchentoshan has always been a very light whisky, with a production process that strips out most of the heavier, long chain molecular compounds and concentrates the lighter acids and esters which provide it with an immense amount of softer flavour pre-cursors.
Bottlings from the early seventies can be very charming and often display more minerality, very light metallic touches, much more grassiness and some lighter notes of oil and polish, although many of these aspects are probably enhanced by bottle aging. Moving through the later seventies and into the eighties many of the bottlings will show more distinctive notes of porridge, often a little cardboard, olive oil, less obvious waxiness or mineral qualities and more vegetal aspects. This is typical of what was almost certainly sloppy cask selection at the time. Later bottlings from the end of the nineties when the range was expanded and redesigned show a distinct improvement.
Auchentoshan is currently available officially in NAS, 10, 12, 18 and 21yo expressions. These seem to improve with age, the NAS and 10yo are marked by a distinctively Auchentoshan profile of pear drops, cereals, mashy notes and flowers. However the 18 and 21yo both show a real elegance and maturity which Auchentoshan really seems to need in order to show its full potential. While other lighter spirits can age spectacularly well and also be good at younger ages, Auchentoshan is one of those rare spirits that seems to really need time to develop. With so many light alcohols and flavour compounds it can keep its freshness in the wood for many years. Anyone who doubts Auchentoshan’s potential for flavour should delve into some of the official aged releases from the 1960’s that have been bottled in the last decade. They reveal a spirit at the height of its powers, all that lightness has morphed into an exceptionally fruit centered whisky, full of mature floral notes, malty sweetness and beautiful aged characteristics of metal polish, pine resin and rancio. This potential is revealed to its full extent by the official 50yo bottlings from the 1957 vintage, both casks show just how incredibly composed, elegant and controlled the spirit can be at great age, the only problem is affording such expensive bottlings.
There are more independent expressions of Auchentoshan all the time these days and many are of good quality, although the best and most consistent examples of the make seem to be the official releases. There is also the Three Wood bottling which comprises Auchentoshan from a variety of ages from different, more active wood types. It provides a meatier, more jammy angle on the spirit and is a very popular dram among chocolate and cigar aficionados.
Auchentoshan is easy to overlook if you like big flavorsome malts, especially if your only encounter is with the NAS or 10yo bottlings. But it is a spirit with great potential and when aged properly it can do a stunning ballet of complexity, poise and elegance with a wonderful array of lighter, fruit driven flavours. Lets hope that they will see fit to release some more aged expressions in future and at a fair price as well.