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Fettercairn distillery was founded in 1824 by Sir Alexander Ramsay, a man who had long campaigned for relaxed distilling laws and became one of the first to acquire a license after the passing of the 1823 excise act. In 1830 Ramsay sold the distillery to Sir John Gladstone, father of future Prime Minister William Gladstone. When Sir John passed away, the distillery was inherited by his eldest son Thomas, who leased the property to David Durie.
Under Durie’s stewardship the distillery was expanded and business was booming but tragedy was on the horizon. In 1878 distillery manager of 35 years Mr William Aitken was returning from the village inn of an evening. In the darkness he missed the bridge and fell into the burn, which was in full flood at the time. A massive search was launched but there was no sign, save the missing man’s pocket book on the bank. His body was eventually discovered some 20 miles away on the beach beneath St Cyrus. A popular man in the local community, Aitken’s loss was felt deeply, nowhere moreso than at Fettercairn distillery.
Sadly however the distillery’s troubles weren’t over, less than a decade later on Saturday the 15th of October 1887, leaseholder Durie walked his rounds at 6pm as he did every night and found all to his liking. By 10pm however, a great fire was observed by those in the village. The locals descended upon the scene to lend a hand but the blaze had taken considerable hold. Fanned by a northerly breeze, it raged through the night and into the next morning. Grain lofts, granaries and malt floors along with significant stocks of spirit in the warehouse were lost, though the distillery proper was mercifully saved by the tireless work of the villagers. The damage was so severe, it took two years to repair and rebuild.
In 1923 Fettercairn was sold to Ross & Coulter, beginning a period of unsettlement as it changed hands again and again. Eventually Glasgow-based blender Whyte & Mackay bought the distillery in 1973 and they remain at the helm today, albeit as part of Phillipino spirits company Emperador.
The Fettercairn single malt has struggled over the years to win the hearts of whisky drinkers, with the latest in a lengthy line of rebrandings coming in 2018. Having reviewed both their 12 and 28 year old expressions earlier this year, it would be fair to say that I was less than impressed. Not necessarily with the quality of the spirit, which was at a decent enough level, but with a price structure that seemed to suggest this previously unloved single malt had become a luxury product overnight.
Now the range has grown again with the addition of a 16 year old, which goes some way to plugging the gap between 12 and 28. What has really caught my interest here is the use of chocolate malt, a technique that involves roasting the barley until it has taken on the appearance of coffee beans. Commonly used in the creation of stouts and porters, this process gives the malt chocolate overtones and coffee notes. Once distilled, the spirit spends 14 years maturing in ex-bourbon barrels before a two year finishing period in sherry and port casks. Bottled at 46.4% it retails for £69.
*Full disclosure: I was sent this sample free of charge. 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.
Smell: Interesting nose. You do pick up on the robustness of the malt with those chocolate and coffee notes. There’s also caramel and vanilla. Honey, toffee and warming cinnamon. Raisins, sultanas and forest fruits. Leather and furniture polish. There’s a lot going on but the key word here is balance. Excellent nose actually. What a difference from the pedestrian 12 year old.
Taste: Rich honey on arrival with orange zest and dark chocolate. Then cinnamon and pepper. First sherry, with raisins and currants and then the port comes through. Like the nose, it’s very precise, allowing each contributing factor a moment to shine before giving up the floor to the next element. Strong coffee note on the finish along with some drying oak.
Value for Money: It would be fair to say I had a bit of a problem with the pricing of both the 12 and 28 year old but while the 16 year old isn’t exactly cheap, it is at least comparable to similarly aged drams bottled around 46% – GlenDronach, Springbank and Old Pulteney for example all have 15 year old malts priced at £60 – £65. I couldn’t find any official confirmation that the spirit was un-chill-filtered, though it did cloud up with the addition of water, suggesting that it has been left relatively intact. The best I’ve yet tasted from the rejuvenated Fettercairn though perhaps still a wee bit on the steep side for a single malt attempting to build bridges with a disillusioned whisky community.
It’s just possible that Whyte & Mackay have finally produced a dram that will have people falling in love with poor old Fettercairn. It may not be within budget for every whisky drinker but it does at least feel like your £70 will buy you a whisky that’s close to excellence. More of this please, Fettercairn.
Buy Fettercairn 16 year old from Master of Malt here
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**Other retailers are available.
For more on Fettercairn visit here