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“The Whisky Illuminati” was the brainchild of Keith Bonnington, a veteran of the drinks industry who spent many years working with Whyte & MacKay and later Edrington. Co-owner and director of Colonsay Beverages Ltd and one of the driving forces behind the Colonsay Brewery, Bonnington gathered a panel of experts together and set them the task of selecting the very best liquids to be bottled.
Once the first batch of casks had been chosen by this secretive collective (hence the Illuminati name) Keith released the Candlelight Series made up of four single cask bottlings from Mortlach, Clynelish, Glentauchers and Linkwood.
This was followed the next year by the Solaria Series, an intriguing concept that saw each cask in the range divided into three unique bottlings. The first release came in 2019, with further instalments due in 2021 and 2023 giving consumers an unprecedented look at the development of a whisky as it ages in oak.
Of course, great idea aside, the project would be rather a waste of time if the liquid weren’t actually any good and at £120 a bottle, it really needs to be something worth splashing out on. On paper at least, this doesn’t appear to be a problem with whisky sourced from Craigellachie, Royal Brackla, Aultmore and a secret Speyside distillery dubbed “Artis Secretum”. Each expression is un-chill-filtered, natural colour and comes bottled at cask strength after ageing in European Oak ex-Sherry casks…
*Full disclosure: I was given samples of these drams in order that I might share my thoughts with you, my readers. As always I will strive to give an honest and impartial opinion on the inherent quality of the dram and the value for money it represents.
Aultmore distillery was founded in Keith in 1895 but within a few short years it had ceased to operate, a victim of the reckless business dealings of its owners the Pattison Brothers. It reopened in 1904 but closed again at the onset of War a decade later. In 1923 it was purchased by Dewar’s who sold to the Distiller’s Company in 1925. The Distiller’s Company would eventually become Diageo and sell Aultmore back to Dewar’s, by then part of Bacardi, in 1998. Official versions of the Aultmore malt are limited to a single 12 year old release, though the spirit can regularly appears in independent bottlings.
The Solaria Series Aultmore was distilled in 2011 and allowed to mature in a sherry butt until 2018 when 120 bottles were drawn forth at a whopping strength of 67.5%. Retails at £120.
Smell: Woody at first with obvious Sherry notes. Twiggy spice… Aniseed and cinnamon sticks. Coffee. Christmas pudding. Raisins, figs and an interesting meaty note – beef in red wine.
Taste: Big juicy arrival with grapes and berries. Rum. Ginger – lots of ginger. Dark chocolate. Coffee. Prunes. Cloves. Red wine jus.
Thoughts: £120 isn’t cheap – but then neither are sherry butts and the small batch nature of these bottlings, the huge sherry character and the whopping abv go some way to justifying the price.
Some whiskies are “spirit-forward” and having had barely a tickle from oak they show off the distillery character front and centre. Others offer a balance between the spirit and cask influence whilst others still are dominated by highly active wood. Every whisky you come across lands somewhere on a spectrum between these three points and there is no correct way of doing things, only different outcomes, each capable of fostering great results.
The Solaria Series lands very much in the latter category but where the Aultmore bottling succeeds is in the complexity of the cask influence with both juicy sherry and tannic oak notes vying for attention. It makes for an interesting and rewarding sipping experience and it will be fascinating to see how things develop for the next scheduled bottlings. It seems likely the sherry influence will fade and the oak take over but who knows, perhaps the sherry still has enough left to make a fight of it into 2021 and beyond…
Not much information on this one – for obvious reasons. There is a family-owned distillery in the area that famously won’t allow its name to feature on independent bottles but suggesting the spirit was produced at that particular location would be pure speculation on my part.
Produced on Speyside in 2011 and matured in a 1st fill Spanish Oak Sherry Butt. Bottled 2018 at an impressive 67.1%. Also retails at £120 a bottle.
Smell: Raisins, sultanas… prune juice. Agave syrup. Varnish. Tree sap. Toffee. Almond. Rosemary. Cinnamon. Leather. Red grapes and summer fruit top notes.
Taste: Dark honey and lots of winter spices. Blackcurrant. Toffee. Salted caramel. Peanuts. Honeycomb. Chocolate raisins. Figs.
Thoughts: As above… at £120 this is no small purchase but the buyer is rewarded with a soul-hugging warmer of a dram that almost demands your affection.
The whisky equivalent of chicken soup. Comfort whisky! Big, rich and satisfying. The palate doesn’t quite live up to the wonderfully complex sherry nose but perhaps that will develop over the next two bottlings. As it stands, Artis Secretum is a little clumsy and lacking in subtlety but still, ultimately, lovable.
The Solaria Series is a great idea and even though it would cost a small fortune to acquire all three bottles in the series it still feels like it would be a rewarding experience. The question is, which one should you choose to invest in?
For me, the Aultmore is the superior dram in its present state and if I was looking for a one-off, beautifully packaged, sherry matured, single cask Speyside then it would be high on my list of options. I suspect however that Artis Secretum would get the nod were I about to embark on the whole 3 part series. It just seems to have more potential for development and less risk of becoming over-oaked.
Visit the Whisky Illuminati and learn more about the Solaria Series here.
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