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North Star Spirits should need little introduction to long-term readers of this blog. Safe to say that I’m a big fan of their work and have been lucky to receive samples of many of their bottlings over the years. Now that 2020, or as it’s otherwise known, the year we all want to forget, is drawing to a close, North Star have readied a new batch of quality spirits to tempt our taste buds with a range that includes Single Malts, Blended Malts and even Fortified Wine from Montilla. There would appear to be some seriously interesting drams on offer here…
*Full disclosure: I was sent these samples free of charge. As always I will strive to given an honest opinion in the inherent quality of the spirit and the value for money it represents.
Springbank 1994 25 Year Old Single Malt
To say that Springbank doesn’t pop up as an independent bottling very often is a bit of an understatement. A few years back I remember Mark Watt, then of Cadenhead’s, telling me that even they struggled to get it – and they’re basically the same company! This would appear to be something of a coup therefore and at 25 years old, I suspect it could be very special indeed, albeit at a price few of us can afford.
Smell: Vanilla, honey, lemon and shortbread biscuits. Black pepper. Apple and pear. Marmalade. Wee touch of brine. Remnants of oily smoke.
Taste: Mango chutney. Orange zest. Honey. Gentle peppery spice throughout. Sponge cake. Sea salt and oak finish – like sucking on a piece of freshly washed-up driftwood.
Value for money: Safe to say this one is a little out of my reach at £630 a bottle. That doesn’t come as a surprise but it’s nevertheless a wee bit depressing just how difficult it is for the average person to be able to enjoy such an exquisite whisky. It isn’t the fault of North Star – whisky prices, especially cask prices, have gone mad and as I’ve already mentioned, quarter-century Springbank doesn’t come along too often. Very deep pockets required but the fortunate few will certainly get a fine bottle for their (large sum) of money. I just hope the price doesn’t stop this stuff from being consumed. It would be a terrible shame to see such excellent whisky collecting dust on a shelf.
A 25 year old Springbank was never going to be bad was it? The nose isn’t perhaps the most spectacular, especially at first, but time is of the essence with a dram like this and it really begins to come into its own after ten / fifteen minutes in the glass. One of those whiskies that delivers something different with each sip, constantly shifting and evolving as it develops. Glad I was able to taste it, but sad that there won’t be many others who get to do the same.
Glen Spey 2006 14 Year Old Single Malt
One of the Diageo distilleries that rarely sees the light of day as a single malt, except as a 12 year old in the Flora & Fauna range, Glen Spey was founded in 1878 as an extension to the Mill which already stood on the same site. The distillery came to be owned by W & A Gilbey and in 1962 they became part of International Distillers and Vintners, one of many companies that would contribute to the genesis of Diageo.
Matured in a refill hogshead before finishing in Oloroso and bottling at 59.1%.
Smell: What a nose. The Oloroso is there straight away with raisins and sultanas, figs and dates. There’s caramel and chocolate pastries. Vanilla and honey. Orange zest. Gingerbread.
Taste: Woody with lots of the sherry again. Currant buns. Dark chocolate-covered raisins. Big gingery spice that carries into the finish. With water there’s vanilla fudge, some honey and apple juice.
Value for money: We’re in much more affordable territory here, with an asking price of around £50 – exceptional value for a 14 year old single malt at this abv.
The intensity of that sherry finish means you get a lot of flavour for your money. A big satisfying dram with enough warmth to thaw even the most frozen of winter days.
Lynch Isle 20 Year Old Highland Single Malt
Not much information on the origins of this Highland malt, though some say there may be a clue in the name…
Matured in a sherry butt before finishing in a Portuguese Brandy Butt for a combined total of 20 years. Bottled at 53.3%.
Smell: This distillery is known for a certain waxiness and it is present and correct, underneath a warm brandy butter aroma. There’s apple and cinnamon sticks and some raspberry. Chocolate-covered peanuts and honey.
Taste: Honey, caramel and waxed lemons. Cinnamon and nutmeg. Pepper. Chocolate and coffee. Apple and pear.
Value for money: This one will cost you around £125 but I don’t think that’s too extreme given the distillery and the age of the malt and when you take the unusual cask combination and limited outturn into account, you’ve got something really rather unique here.
Another cracker in what is shaping up to be quite the batch. Like Springbank, “Lynch Isle” is a distillery known to produce an excellent spirit but because of that quality, people tend to keep things fairly simple where cask make-up is concerned. I’ve certainly never seen one matured in sherry and finished in brandy before. At first the brandy seems quite prominent but it settles down, and in truth the whole experience is one of quite exceptional balance – no easy feat with such a busy array of influences. Great stuff.
Caol Ila 2009 11 Year Old
Caol Ila probably deserves a better reputation than it actually has. Not that people speak ill of it of course, it just isn’t quite as trendy as many of its neighbours. Thanks to the sheer quantity produced however, it is a common fixture in the independent bottling scene, with a good number of “undisclosed distillery” bottlings actually being Caol Ila. Despite its proliferation however, the quality is impressively consistent…
Matured in a 1st fill Sherry butt, this Caol Ila has been bottled at 58.2%.
Smell: Smoky bacon crisps – Frazzles! Coal fires and chimney soot. Charcoal. Also vanilla, maple syrup, honey-glazed ham.
Taste: Pepper and peat. Raisins and sultanas. Salted caramel. Liquorice. Honey. Oak. Lingering campfire smoke.
Value for money: In truth, the frequency with which I encounter independently bottled Caol Ila has diminished my enthusiasm for it a little. Whenever some bottler or other announces their latest batch I find myself wondering what Caol Ila they’ll have this time. It’s like the token Islay. Fortunately however that rather grumpy mindset is usually shaken upon tasting and I’m delighted to say that North Star have a rather magnificent example here that comes at the very reasonable price of £55 a bottle.
Islay single malts aren’t cheap so finding an 11 year old, matured in a first fill sherry butt retailing for £55 is a bit of a result. Fair play to North Star, with this, and the rapidly following Batch 12, they have bottled some real show stopping casks that sit at the ultra-premium end of the scale, but they’ve made sure to include a couple of absolute belters that everyday whisky drinkers can afford to take home. A wonderful marriage of sherry and smoke at an excellent price.
Vega 20 Year Old Blended Malt
Now in its 7th batch, the Vega blended malt has been one of the best value drams on the market since its introduction in 2017. Previous bottlings have ranged from 22 to 41 years in age with this latest offering being the youngest yet at “just” 20 years old.
Matured in both European and American Oak for a total of 20 years before bottling at 43.5%.
Smell: Vanilla and lots of caramel. Old oak. Orange creams. Dark chocolate. Cinnamon.
Taste: Raisins and currants. Honey. Highland toffee. Caramel. Almond and marzipan. Cinnamon and clove.
Value for money: If you want age at a good price, blended malts are an excellent way to go about it and North Star’s Vega series are among the very best examples. I didn’t love this one quite as much as the last couple of expressions but it was still a very fine dram and an absolute bargain to boot. You don’t find many 20 year old malts for £62.
Another fine addition to the Vega series with a nice sherry influence, though this is no one-dimensional sherry bomb. There’s a nice bourbon-y sweetness there too and all the depth we’ve come to expect from this range. Delicious and fantastic value for money – that’s Vega for you.
Pedro Ximenez Fortified Wine
The third time North Star have bottled a Pedro Ximenez Fortified Wine from Montilla (it’s basically sherry but can’t be called such because it isn’t from Jerez!). I’m no expert at what makes a good PX but I shall nevertheless attempt to share my thoughts with you.
Bottled at 16.8%.
Smell: Sultanas. Prune juice. Maple syrup. Coffee. Raspberry and blackcurrant.
Taste: Oh wow. Lots of sweet fruits. Juicy raisins. Figs. Prunes. Dates. Chocolate – Minstrels! Treacle.
Value for money: I’ve seen it retailing anywhere between £16 and £25 a bottle. When you think of the money people would pay for a whisky with a big PX character, that is astonishingly good value for money.
What a way to round out a ludicrously good batch of bottlings. To put it simply this stuff is marvellous – even better than I remember the first batch, though admittedly it’s been a long time since I sampled that one. PX isn’t for everyone – my wife for example can’t touch the stuff without feeling like her teeth are going to fall out – but if you have a sweet tooth like me, there are few experiences as enjoyable in the world of booze as a Pedro Ximenez sherry – or in this case “Fortified Wine”. Magnificent stuff. Now if I can just find somewhere that’s actually selling it so that I can grab a couple in time for Christmas…
*Price information taken from Aberdeen Whisky Shop – may vary elsewhere. https://aberdeenwhiskyshop.co.uk/search?q=north+star+spirits
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