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I first got to know family-owned, independent bottler A.D. Rattray at a whisky tasting in Glasgow’s Good Spirits Co a number of years ago. The line-up on the evening in question featured drams of Stronachie and Cask Islay alongside a number of single cask expressions from various distilleries. Hosting the tasting was none other than Iain Croucher, who would later go on to create North Star Spirits. Iain explained that A.D. Rattray kept a supply of casks at their Ayrshire-based ‘Whisky Experience’ from whence customers could fill their very own unique bottle of ‘cask strength’ single malt. The company have gone on to become distillers in their own right with the launch of the Clydeside in Glasgow, but the practice of offering single casks to customers continues today, with some interesting experiments taking place along the way…
It was with some delight that I received a package containing samples of the most recent of these experiments. The Octave Project is a bold exploration of the occasionally murky world of cask ‘finishing’, with a single malt from the Arran distillery aged for 6 years in a 250 litre Bourbon Barrel before being divided and transferred to smaller 50 litre Octave casks. A fifth of the malt remained in the original barrel, while the rest is shared between casks which previously held Pedro Ximenez Sherry, Oloroso Sherry. Rioja Wine and Rum.
These smaller casks are an effective way of speeding up the effects of finishing due to the higher liquid to wood ratio they allow and have helped, in this case, to create five fascinating variations of what is essentially the same single malt…
Original Bourbon Barrel
Smell: Vanilla, Cream, Peach, Orange, Lemon, Apple and Pepper.
Taste: Caramel, Honey, Vanilla & Sea Salt, Biscuit, Orange, Oak, Pepper and a touch of Chocolate.
Value for Money: Each expression in the range comes in at £57 for a 70cl bottle. Under normal circumstances a cask strength, 6 year old Arran single malt of this quality would be worth snapping up immediately but this is not normal circumstances, and there may well be more exciting alternatives later in the range…
Scores: 42.5 / 50.
Though perhaps not as exciting as others in the pack, it is still a young and powerful Arran which has enjoyed a successful maturation in a good quality barrel. As a result, the distillery character is undoubtedly at it’s most noticeable here and therefore perhaps would appeal most to real fans of the official core range.
Pedro Ximenez Octave Finish
Smell: A little subdued at first but after some time in the glass there’s notes of Raisins, Prunes and Treacle with underlying Vanilla and Green Fruits.
Taste: Salted Caramel and Ripe Berries, Red Apples and Plums, Sea Salt, white Pepper and Oak.
Value for Money: Well now, this would certainly be worth a purchase at £57.
Scores: 46 / 50.
Wow. What a difference! The PX influence brings an extraordinary explosion of flavour on the palate, though the character of the spirit does slowly become apparent after some time in the glass. It is a real star of a whisky but definitely not one for those that like their drams soft and subtle.
Oloroso Octave Finish
Smell: Christmas Cake, Cinnamon, Orange, Toffee Apples, Vanilla and Fresh Fruit.
Taste: Raisins, Bitter Dark Chocolate, Nutmeg and Ginger, Orange and Oak.
Value for Money: The combination of Bourbon maturation and Oloroso finishing is rather commonplace among many distillers today but here we have a particularly well executed example.
Scores: 44.5 / 50.
A little less explosive than the PX alternative but there is still a dram of robust flavour here. Rich and sumptuous, it is a dram to take one’s time over with every drop demanding to be savoured.
Rioja Octave Finish
Smell: Lots of Fruit – Figs, Plums, Orange, Peach, Apple, Pear… Along with Toffee and Caramel and some exotic Spice.
Taste: Oak and Spice with more Fruit.. Orange, Red Apples, Berries and Raspberry Jam with the same Toffee / Caramel characteristic found in the nose.
Value for Money: This comes across as a dram that may take a little time to truly appreciate and it is for this very reason, that it could become the most rewarding of the series, with each return to the bottle unveiling new layers.
Scores: 45 / 50.
Mouthwatering Aroma combines with a complex and unusual array of flavours to create something really rather special.
Rum Octave Finish
Smell: Definite touch of Rum around the nose, then Apple, Pear, Orange and Peach… Honey with a Grassy Menthol-like freshness and perhaps a slight touch of Chocolate.
Taste: Rum impact seems more prominent than the nose with lots of Spice – Nutmeg and Clove, then Toffee and Chocolate Raisins, a touch of Honey and more Orange.
Value for Money: Another fantastic value for money offering.
Scores: 44 / 50.
The impact of the Rum octave seems less dynamic than that of the wine casks, making this the most alike to the original bourbon. There is without a doubt however, an additional layer of complexity brought on by the secondary maturation and while not as instantly adorable as say, the PX, it is a dram that could grow to become a real go-to in any connoisseurs cabinet.
The Octave Project is easily one of the more exciting bottling series I’ve come across recently and is especially rewarding when able to compare the drastic differences between samples. Of course, experimentation is all well and good, but palatable results are required at the end of it all and here A.D. Rattray have certainly not failed.
The original Bourbon is a pleasantly creamy yet fruity dram, the Oloroso highlights exactly why this Sherry wood is in such high demand with distillers worldwide, the Rum and Rioja both offer something a little outside the norm but for me, the real standout was the incredible Pedro Ximenez finish, a dram with such an intensity of flavour that it will live on in my memory for quite some time to come.
***Full Disclosure: the good folks at A.D. Rattray sent me this sample set for review purposes. As always, I have attempted to remain as impartial as possible.