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North Star Spirits are independent bottlers founded in 2016 by Iain Croucher. Over the short time the company has been in existence, they have developed a reputation for consistently good bottlings across their quarterly output – not a bad achievement in the midst of frequent reports of limited cask availabilty.
With their latest batch, North Star show no sign of slowing down, unveiling a range of drams as interesting as anything you’ll find from far more established firms. In this review I’ll be looking at four in particular… An 11 year old Glenrothes matured in an oloroso sherry butt, followed by a 9 year old Caol Ila matured in bourbon then finished in PX. Then there’s an intriguing 5 year old blended malt from Campbeltown, aged in a bourbon hogshead before finishing in PX and finally, an 11 year old Burgundy wine matured single malt from the English Whisky Company…
*Full Disclosure: I was sent these samples free of charge so 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 spirit and the value for money it represents.
Glenrothes 11 Year Old
Confusingly, the Glenrothes distillery does not reside in the Fife town that shares its name but stands instead in Rothes near the heart of the famous Speyside region. In 1887 it merged with Bunnahabhain to create Highland Distillers, a forerunner to Edrington. In 1993 a long association with Berry Bros & Rudd of London led to the wine and spirits retailer packaging and distributing the single malt on behalf of the owners. In 2010, they bought the brand outright only for Edrington to reacquire it in 2017. After years of favouring vintage bottlings the brand has reverted to more traditional age stated expressions.
Bottled in partnership with whisky vlogger Ralfy in order to mark the tenth anniversary of his YouTube channel, this 11 year old Glenrothes comes in at a reassuring 51.4%, retailing for around £72.
Smell: Caramel & toffee. Orange. Raisins. Chocolate. Cinnamon and ginger. Toast and oatcakes.
Taste: Toffee and chocolate covered raisins. Oak tannin and woody spice. Digestive biscuits. Orange zest. Pepper. Caramel.
Value for Money: Official bottlings of Glenrothes have fallen a little short in my past experience but the cask strength indie versions I’ve come across have been of a high standard and thankfully, this one is no different. Even at £70 a bottle it seems a good buy.
A sumptuous, complex and evolving dram. It’s weighty and robust yet despite prominent sherry it never becomes one-dimensional. Comforting, warming and extremely satisfying with a finish that lingers for days. Great stuff.
Campbeltown Blended Malt 5 Year Old
Campbeltown was once dubbed the whisky capital of the world, with around 30 distilleries known to be in operation during the Victorian whisky boom but a combination of factors, both local and more widespread, led to a dramatic crash in this once thriving industry. When the dust settled only two distilleries remained… Springbank and Glen Scotia. This situation changed in 2000 when the owners of Springbank acquired the shell of a building that once housed Glengyle. Silent since 1925, the rebirth of this distillery assured the town’s status as a whisky region in its own right.
This 5 year old blended malt contains spirit from two of Campbeltown’s distilleries and was finished in an ex-Pedro Ximenez sherry cask after maturation in a bourbon hogshead. Bottled at 49.1%, it retails around £50.
Smell: Black pepper. Salted caramel. Toffee. Oak char. Light smoke. With a little time in the glass the sherry influence becomes more prominent… Raisins, currants, dark honey… Tree sap.
Taste: Lots of sherry on arrival. Toffee. Raisins. Coffee beans. Dark chocolate. Dry oak with a peppery heat. Touch of smoke and sea salt.
Value for Money: A remarkable whisky for just five years old and an absolute bargain for the price.
Some may sneer at its youth but the combination of sherry and coastal influences with that little bit of smoke is an absolute winner. Benefits from a nice bottling strength of 49.1% – high enough to provide good depth of flavour, not so high as to sear the taste buds. Brilliant.
Caol Ila 9 Year Old
Caol Ila is currently undergoing something of a facelift. Despite being Islay’s largest distillery by capacity, it would be safe to say the 60’s designed plant has long been in need of a little upgrade – particularly where the visitor experience is concerned. However, irrespective of any cosmetic problems and despite a quantity-led production process, the malt produced onsite remains remarkably consistent and often shows itself particularly well when allowed to shine in a cask strength, un-chill-filtered bottling.
Matured in a bourbon hogshead then finished in a Pedro Ximenez sherry cask before bottling at 51.8%, the North Star Caol Ila 9 year old retails at £56.95…
Smell: Lots of trademark Islay smoke. Black pepper. Wet slate. Touch of barley malt. Lemon. Liquorice. Honey. The influence of the sherry cask is subtle but noticeable.
Taste: Caramel, maple syrup, cinnamon and clove. Sea salt and pepper. Smoke and wood. With the addition of water the sherry exerts itself with more confidence – raisins and prunes coming to the fore.
Value for Money: Cask strength Caol Ila is not a rare find but this is nevertheless a fine example that has been priced very reasonably.
The subtle complexity of the sherry finish is a real treat. With less successful finishes you get a blast of sherry before it fades away, never to return. Here however, its influence is revealed slowly as it gently makes its way into your awareness. The nose and palate are almost mirror images of one another with prominent smoke on the former and more of a sherry character on the latter.
The English Whisky Company 11 Year Old
During the 19th century the sight of whisky production in the English countryside would barely have raised an eyebrow but when the last of them fell silent in 1903, it must have seemed like the industry was lost forever. A century later, almost exactly, Hicks & Healey began to produce whisky in Cornwall. This was followed in 2006 by the opening of the St. George’s Distillery in Norfolk by James Nelstrop. Under his English Whisky Company label, Nelstrop went on to put the category on the map, even supplying spirit for an own-label bottling by Marks & Spencer supermarkets.
This North Star bottling of the St. George’s spirit was matured for a full 11 years in a burgundy red wine cask before bottling at 49.8%. Retails at £95.
Smell: Big sulphury nose. Struck matches. Burnt toast. Some would say eggy. Also fruit jam, caramel, paprika, cherries and plum. Soft smoke.
Taste: Caramel and raspberry jam. Honey. Chinese five spice. Struck match note is there again but nowhere near as overpowering as the nose. Wood smoke. Liquorice.
Value for Money: Not a cheap dram this one though it can certainly be considered to be something rather out of the ordinary.
Hard to score this one. It’s easily among the most sulphured drams I’ve ever come across and as a result, some people will absolutely hate, hate, HATE it. On the other hand, I don’t mind a bit of sulphur in my dram, the palate is nowhere near as over-the-top as the nose and there are some markets, particularly in Europe, that love this flavour profile. In the end I think I rather enjoy the sheer outrageousness of it. This is a dram I’d absolutely love to pour for people. I’d bring it out the cabinet for every whisky drinking visitor to my house – just to see their reaction. Utterly, utterly bonkers but actually quite lovable with it.
There are those who frown on whisky bloggers accepting free samples as they feel it may compromise the integrity of the review. Whilst that is a position I understand, I made the decision to accept such donations a long time ago. We are each susceptible to bias in every facet of our lives anyway and it is something we must always be aware of. Every whisky fan has their favourites and we each are capable of deluding ourselves into thinking a dram is better than it really is. Whether I bought a whisky myself or was given it for free I always strive to give an honest opinion on it and I hope that my readers trust me to do so.
Sometimes scoring “free” whisky can be difficult though – take these four single casks for example. I found myself questioning if I was overrating them but my personal experience was that each dram was a real character, utterly deserving of high praise. I’ll be damned if I’m knocking points off just to prevent the review appearing too favourable. In all honesty, Iain and his team have quite the knack for picking interesting casks and these four are as good as any others they’ve released. Sod it, maybe I am biased. Long live North Star Spirits!
Visit North Star Spirits here.