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North Star Spirits was founded in 2016 by Iain Croucher, a former brand ambassador for A.D. Rattray. Over the last couple of years the company has gained a reputation as purveyors of the finest quality single cask spirits. Everything from Sherry to Bourbon has been bottled, but it was the excellent selection of scotch whisky which first brought North Star to my attention.
Casks from distilleries as diverse as Tobermory, Port Dundas, Arran, Ardbeg, Bruichladich and Benrinnes have been bottled, undiluted and colouring free. These have been backed up by an intriguing series of well-aged blends under the Vega and Spica labels.
In late 2018, North Star unveiled their 6th batch of single casks, featuring whisk(e)y from the likes of Heaven Hill, Miltonduff and Bladnoch whilst at the same time introducing a new series of single malts from undisclosed distilleries. Dubbed ‘The Millennial Range’, these new bottles offer a budget-friendly snapshot of Scotland’s main whisky regions.
*Full Disclosure: I was sent samples of the Millennial Range for review. As always, I will strive to remain as impartial as possible.
The Highland Star
The Highland region was officially defined by the Wash Act of 1784. Due to tougher operating conditions, highland distillers were made exempt from the infamous ‘malt tax‘ but this proved less than popular with their lowland competitors. As a result, the government ruled that the whisky of the highlands must remain above the newly defined ‘highland line’ which ran from Dunoon in the west to Dundee in the east. Since the small batch spirit of the highlands was seen to be of greater quality than the mass produced liquid of the lowlands however, it wasn’t long before it was being smuggled south in great quantities. The Excise Act of 1823 then made it more affordable to buy a license, helping to cut down and finally eliminate the thriving illicit distilling industry, though the reputation of Highland-produced malt whisky remained intact.
The Highland Star is a single malt from an unknown distillery, aged for 11 years and bottled at 50% abv.
Smell: Touch of Vanilla, Floral Heather, Buttery Shortbread, Apple Pastries, Lemon and Malty Biscuits. Possibly a faint hint of Smoke.
Taste: Lots of Spice, Dark Chocolate, Orange, Salt and Pepper, Caramel, Biscuit and Vanilla.
Value for Money: The whole range is sensibly priced at around £40 a bottle, though I must confess, I didn’t enjoy this one at first.
I love a higher strength whisky but I found this a little hot on the palate. In saying that, I was battling a head cold when I took my tasting notes and even though my senses seemed OK, it’s possible that I was a little more sensitive to the heat than usual. I certainly found myself using much more water than I normally would. In any case, with a few generous splashes, the heat of the Highland Star settled down to a subtle glow and I was eventually able to sit back and enjoy it to the full.
The Speyside Star
Speyside is the most densely populated whisky region in all of Scotland. Home to around half of the nations distilleries, it seems every village in the area has at least two on their doorstep. The whiskies of the region are traditionally viewed as lighter and fruitier than the spirit of the west and rose to prominence with the blended whisky boom of the late 19th century, appealing to a Victorian audience which had just discovered Scotland thanks to the habits of the Queen and the writings of Sir Walter Scott.
Aged for 12 years, the Speyside Star is bottled at 50% alcohol by volume.
Smell: Perhaps a bit of Sulphur at first, with the scent of Struck Matches rising from the glass, then comes Creamy Caramel, Foam Bananas (!), Maple Syrup, Dark Chocolate Digestive Biscuits and Raisins.
Taste: Caramel and Maple Syrup, Treacle, Pepper, Cinnamon and Cloves, Burnt Toast, Dark Chocolate, Berries and Prunes.
Value for Money: A much more pleasing dram this, at least to my overly sensitive palate. A good example of a sherried Speyside.
There’s a lot of flavour here – and at a very reasonable price. Reminded me a little of Douglas Laing’s Scallywag blended malt, albeit with the spice turned up a notch. Once again, it can handle a generous addition of water without losing any of its flavour.
The Island Star
Many of Scotland’s islands are ill suited to crop farming. Nevertheless, whisky production was not uncommon in these isolated outposts of civilisation. A good harvest would bring a small excess of grain and with no realistic trade opportunities, whisky was the best way to utilise all that one had. Despite licenses becoming cheaper after the passing of the Excise Act in 1823, transport links were so poor that few islanders could compete with mainland distillers and one by one their stills fell silent. A few businesses clung on in Mull, Skye and Orkney and now, there is a resurgence in the islands which started with Arran in the 90’s and continues today with new sites in operation on Raasay, Lewis and Harris. There is now even a gin distillery in Shetland that hopes to one day produce whisky.
The Island Star is 10 years old and bottled at 50% abv.
Smell: Brine and light Peat Smoke, touch of Vanilla, White Pepper, Lemon and Apple and a strong ‘Terry’s Chocolate Orange’ vibe.
Taste: Sea Salt and Black Pepper, Creamy Milk Chocolate, Orange Zest and Chilli Powder, the finish is drying with Oak and Acrid Smoke – much more prominent than on the nose.
Value for Money: A tasty little coastal number, aged for 10 years and bottled at 50% for less than £40 is absolutely fine with me.
I enjoyed this one. The blast of brine and sea salt instantly transports the drinker to Scotland’s blustery coast, whilst the smoke makes its presence known without ever becoming overpowering. Rather, it is but one element in a well balanced, rounded dram.
The Islay Star
Of all Scotland’s whisky regions, Islay has by far the strongest identity. This is perhaps unsurprising for a small island which houses eight functioning distilleries, with as many as three more in various stages of development.
The story of Islay whisky is, in many ways, the story of peat. Long used to heat crofts, peat was the naturally available fuel source when it came to drying barley, somewhat unintentionally creating the distinctive smoky character which we now know and love as the Islay ‘style’. Six of the islands eight distilleries produce a heavily peated core range while the other two, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, produce heavily peated expressions alongside their largely unpeated flagship brands.
This island’s whisky has long been revered. In the 1840’s, the Royal Household twice requested of the local laird ‘a cask of your finest Islay mountain dew‘. This royal link continues today, with every bottle of Laphroaig carrying the warrant of Prince Charles himself.
The Islay Star is aged for 11 years and bottled at 50% alcohol by volume.
Smell: Creamy Vanilla and trademark Islay Smoke – complete with a medicinal hit of Bandaids and Germolene Antiseptic Cream! There’s also Barley Sugar, Lemon, Pepper, Brine and Seaweed.
Taste: Salty, Smokey, Creamy and Malty with Peppery Spice. A little like throwing damp driftwood onto the fire, then taking it off again and chewing on it. In the best possible way, of course.
Value for Money: A typical Islay single malt in everything but price – a 10 year old at 50% for under £40? There aren’t too many of them around.
A little predictable perhaps but then, North Star are trying to capture the identity of a region here and in that respect the Islay Star is a roaring success. In any case, even a predictable Islay is an appealing prospect.
This isn’t the first time that North Star have released single malts from undisclosed distilleries but bottling at a standard 50% and releasing as part of a series is an interesting new direction.
The Millennial Range is an accessible way to gain an understanding of Scotland’s whisky regions, though the relatively high strength could possibly prove overwhelming to some newbies. It crosses my mind however, that each of these drams would take a mixer very well. They are also loaded with enough flavour and spice to make their presence felt in a variety of cocktails and I now wonder if that was the point. Yes, they highlight the traditions of a region, but they are also powerful enough, flexible enough and crucially, affordable enough to play around with and that, is a little bit exciting.