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The pick of the bunch…
There’s a bit of a story behind my first meeting with this rather excellent single malt. In fact, a sample bottle found its way into my cabinet and sat there for nearly three whole months before I found out what it was. Allow me to explain…
Every year, Scottish Field magazine runs a whisky challenge that culminates in a panel of judges, assembled from across the whisky industry, ‘blind’ tasting a selection of drams and eventually selecting an outright winner. The results are then formally announced at a dinner ceremony in Edinburgh.
Before all that goes on though, the magazine runs a ‘readers challenge’ and invites ten lucky people to come along and form a judging panel of their own. After a blind tasting marathon, the three highest scoring drams are entered into the main event later. Naturally, this seemed too good an opportunity to miss so I filled out the online application and luckily, I was chosen.
The event took place on a dreich July day at the Vaults in Edinburgh’s historic Leith district, home of course, to the famous Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Those of us taking part were welcomed with tea and coffee, though I must admit, I found it hard to tear my eyes away from the place setting that bore my name and the sea of sample bottles that lay beyond it.
*Please forgive the quality of my photographs. I dropped my phone getting into a taxi on the way to the train station that very morning and cracked the camera lens! It led to all kinds of bizarre lens flare. The pics included are the best of a bad bunch.
In total, 68 whiskies had been submitted by various distillers, blenders and bottlers, ranging from £14 to £230 a bottle. To make things a little more manageable, the group was split in two with the first half tackling whiskies 1 – 34, and the other tasting samples 35 – 68. The idea was to note each dram with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in order to decide by accumulation which samples would then go through to round 2 in the afternoon.
After breaking for lunch, we returned to face the final 22 drams chosen by the group as the best of the bunch. This time, points out of 5 were to be awarded, with the highest scoring across the whole group being crowned the winner. The final tally however, was not made known to us on the day. This would be announced later, in a special issue of the magazine.
Needless to say, the whole day was a lot of fun, though there was an element of seriousness to proceedings as well. There was a lot of samples to get through and while the prospect of tasting so many whiskies in one sitting may seem like a great idea, it really was a bit of a slog at times. There was one point in the afternoon, after perhaps 5 or 6 peated samples in a row that I had to take a break and walk away from the table for a while, my senses quite simply exhausted.
At the conclusion of the day, each of us was asked to select our favourite sample and we were then rewarded with a 100ml bottle to take home. The quality of whisky on offer across the board was remarkably high but in the end, one dram stood above all the others. No. 58 was rich with spice and earthy peat smoke and it ticked every box I could think of.
In October, when the long-awaited email finally dropped into my inbox, I was pleased to see that my personal favourite was in fact the 21-year-old ‘Temporis’ single malt from BenRiach distillery.
As for the results, here’s the official top ten…
- The Tweeddale: The Evolution 28 Year Old Blended Scotch
- The Loch Fyne ‘Living Cask’ Batch 6 Blended Malt
- Port Askaig 14 Year Old Single Malt
- Balblair 1991 Single Malt
- Port Askaig 8 Year Old Single Malt
- Glen Grant 10 Year Old Single Malt
- Port Askaig 100 Proof Single Malt
- The Gentleman’s Blend 38 Year Old Blended Malt
- The Loch Fyne Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt
- BenRiach Temporis 21 Year Old Single Malt
Certainly this was an interesting set of results, what with a pair of blends topping the poll, three entries from Elixir Distillers’ Port Askaig brand and two drams from Loch Fyne Whiskies making the cut. Of course, I was pleased to see my own pick of the day creeping in at number 10, but this got me wondering how the top ten would have looked based on my scores alone. Fortunately, the lovely people at Scottish Field included a copy of my notes from the day, and I was able to compile just such a thing…
- BenRiach Temporis 21 Year Old Single Malt – 4.8 / 5
- The Kinship – Highland Park 21 Year Old Single Malt – 4.7 / 5
- The Gentleman’s Blend 38 Year Old Blended Malt – 4.7 / 5
- The Tweeddale: The Evolution 28 Year Old Blended Scotch – 4.6 / 5
- Balblair 1991 Single Malt – 4.3 / 5
- Port Askaig 100 Proof Single Malt – 4.3 / 5
- Arran Port Cask Finish Single Malt – 4.1 / 5
- The Loch Fyne ‘Living Cask’ Batch 6 Blended Malt – 4.1 / 5
- Elements of Islay ‘Peat’ Full Proof Blended Malt – 4 / 5
- Arran ‘The Bothy’ Batch 4 Single Malt – 4 / 5
It’s interesting that my the results aren’t too different, with six drams making both lists. It is also somewhat reassuring that old favourites like Arran still satisfy me, even when I don’t know what it is I’m sipping. After all, one would feel like something of a fraud if blind tasting scores differed hugely from those awarded in my regular reviews.
As for the BenRiach, now that I know what has been sitting in my cabinet for the last few months, I’m ready to get to know it a little better. Created using spirit aged in ex-bourbon, virgin oak, oloroso and pedro ximenez casks for a minimum of 21 years, the malt has been bottled at 46% abv and retails at around £130.
Smell: Struck Matches, Ash and Acrid Smoke, Charcoal and Burning Embers… eventually lifts to unveil Juicy Raisins, Prune Juice and Maple Syrup, then Vanilla and Toffee with some subtle Green Fruits.
Taste: Green Fruits then Sherry – Raisins, Prunes, Maple Syrup. Oak – Overbrewed Tea! Peppery undercurrent of Smoke slowly rises to come to the fore at the finish.
Thoughts: This was a real journey of a dram. Not because it took months to find out what it was, but because it’s a rollercoaster of a sipping experience. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. It arrives in a flurry of spice and takes its time to evolve on the palate, unveiling more and more layers of flavour as time goes by. For me, this is about as good as whisky gets. £130 isn’t cheap but it’s 21-years-old and rather exceptional, so I think it’s probably justified.
*If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission on any purchases you make after following links from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.
The Scottish Field Reader’s Challenge is an annual event which I can heartily recommend. I would strongly advise keeping an eye on both the website and the magazine’s social media feeds so that you can apply when the call goes out for the next panel. Good luck!
For more on BenRiach…