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News headlines have been dominated recently, at least where whisky is concerned, by new distilleries and new bottlers. We’ve had big announcements from the planned Wolfcraig distillery near Stirling, construction is about to begin on the Port of Leith and Falkirk have finally started distilling after what seems an eternity stuck in development hell. Among the most interesting of the new products however is a single malt by the name of River Rock, created by three former directors of Edrington.
Each hailing from the Kingdom of Fife – Mark Geary from Cellardyke, Laura Anderson from Collessie and Bill Farrar from Dunfermline – the three worked together on brands like The Macallan, Highland Park and The Glenrothes but decided to go their own way with the aim of producing a whisky that would be more accessible to new audiences.
Their claim is that whisky is too often a challenging proposition with too many off-putting characteristics and a host of made-up rules that have accumulated over the years until they have become a barrier to the spirit’s growth. I must admit that I find myself agreeing with much of that view though scotch whisky can often be at its best when it challenges the palate – and don’t modern audiences crave bold flavours and diversity in their drinks? If we whisky geeks were to step out of our own bubble for just a moment however we would no doubt accept that the vast majority of people aren’t looking for a complex, challenging drink. Nine times out of ten they want something simple, tasty and refreshing. That’s why Gin has enjoyed the explosion it has in recent years – and it’s why the Highball-fuelled whisky boom in Japan continues to this day.
The world is a challenging place for all kinds of businesses but especially for an industry hit by trade war tariffs, Brexit uncertainty and a Coronavirus pandemic that has cut off the tourism trade and decimated the travel retail market. Finding new customers has never been more important so this is clearly the time to do away with the out-dated etiquette invented by self-proclaimed Gentlemen generations ago. It’s depressing that in 2020 whisky-groups on social media remain full of “men of a certain age” telling people it’s wrong to put ice in their dram, or making jokes about how sacrilegious it is to mix your whisky with Cola. There’s no medal for being able to drink whisky straight out the cask and if we insist the spirit can only be consumed neat, it will only ever appeal to a small percentage of the population. Maybe some people revel in that exclusivity but I don’t. Scotch whisky is magnificent and it should be enjoyed by people everywhere, on every budget and consumed in a variety of ways depending on the mood and the setting.
With all this in mind, Mark, Laura and Bill searched for three years until they found the whisky they were looking for: a sweeter malt that was more welcoming with no aggressive aromas or burn. Aged in ex-bourbon casks for an unspecified number of years, the whisky is bottled at 40% abv. On this I must confess to allowing myself something of a wry smile. There’s a lot I like about what River Rock are saying, but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen statements like “we steered clear of the straight path” and “created a truly individual single malt”. One can’t help but wonder what separates this ex-bourbon matured malt bottled at 40% from all the other ex-bourbon matured malts bottled at 40%.
As well as reaching for new audiences, River Rock have taken an ethical stance across much of their business. Each bottle is unique and made from “wonky” glass that normally goes to waste when a glass-maker changes colour. They have also partnered with the John Muir Trust and for each bottle of River Rock sold, a native tree will be planted on Schiehallion. It all combines to make this new whisky an interesting proposition and one I hope finds success. The proof however will always be in the drinking and I just hope that their goal of being welcoming and inclusive hasn’t translated into one-dimensional and bland…
Smell: Chocolate orange. Honeycomb and caramel. Vanilla, cinnamon and ginger. Danish pastries. Apple. With time in the glass some lemon and pineapple come through.
Taste: It’s a word many in the whisky scene detest, but smooth is a useful term here. It’s got decent weight and it’s quite well-rounded. There’s caramel and vanilla and some gentle woody spice. Orange and dark chocolate too. Certainly not the most complex but it carries some big flavour. Woody with cinnamon spice on the finish.
Value for money: Whisky prices seem to spiral ever upwards, so a new release at £35 is a welcome sight and from a newbie’s perspective it keeps in line with a lot of the craft gins on the market. Here, £35 buys a versatile dram that makes for an enjoyable every day sipper or an ideal mixing whisky. I haven’t tried it yet, but I suspect it would also work well with honey and lemon in a hot toddy.
You can certainly see what they’re trying to do here. It’s a fully flavoured dram but one that keeps things simple whilst still having enough backbone to take a mixer without disappearing. In particular I found that it worked well as a basic highball with soda water. Though enjoyable enough neat, at £35 a bottle there are undoubtedly better options out there for a straight-up spirit.
River Rock are hardly the first to try taking whisky to a new audience. Monkey Shoulder attempted it years ago and David Beckham’s Haig Club has been trying to persuade Millennials that they needed a single grain whisky from Cameron Brig in their lives since 2014 but River Rock are making all the right noises and they at least seem to have come up with a pleasant whisky to go along with the marketing spiel. It won’t have the whisky nerds drooling but who knows, it might just bring a few new faces into the fold.
For more on River Rock or to pre-order batch 2 visit here