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The Whisky Works is the experimental arm of Whyte & MacKay, founded and run by whisky-maker Gregg Glass. Having begun his career as a tour guide across several Highland distilleries, Glass studied brewing and distilling and worked several roles in the industry before coming to specialise in blending. Soon he was working with John Glaser at Compass Box and from there, joined Whyte & MacKay to work with legendary master blender Richard Patterson.
The Whisky Works was set up to bottle interesting single cask or small batch scotch whisky whilst also developing new, pioneering blends that would delve into previously unexplored territory. Perhaps the greatest example of this creativity was demonstrated in their first release; “King of Trees” was a blended malt, made with Highland whiskies but what made it unusual however, was the decision to mature a portion of the spirit in a cask made from Scottish Oak.
Back in May 2019 Gregg wrote in The Whisky Works blog that the idea came to him during a walk through a forest on the Black Isle. His plans developed further after various visits to sawmills in the Highlands and he began to carry out small-scale trials at home. Native Scottish Oak has never been widely used for the maturation of whisky, largely because it rarely yields the knot-free wood required for making staves but through collaborative partnerships with forest owners, sawmills and cooperages, Gregg and The Whisky Works hope to develop a long-term sustainable approach to sourcing and utilising this untapped resource.
Two trees were used in the production of King of Trees, each of them naturally wind-felled on a Highland estate and then sent to a local sawmill. The wood had to be seasoned (or dried) in order to make it easier to work with and after air seasoning for 3-4 years there was only enough timber to produce a single cask which was then toasted over a traditional brazier at 220 degrees for a total of 47 minutes, before being filled with a proportion of the blend for a finishing period of unspecified length.
King of Trees blend was bottled at 47%, retailing at £75.
*Full disclosure: I was sent this sample free of charge so that I might take part in a virtual tasting. As always I will strive to give an honest opinion on the quality of the dram and the value for money it represents.
Smell: Perhaps its the power of suggestion, but fresh oak is at the forefront, freshly sawn, with sawdust in the air. There’s also some honeyed cereal and sponge cake. Apple and pear. Candle wax. Vanilla fudge. Gentle baking spices and a hint of barbecue.
Taste: Butterscotch and fudge. Cinnamon and nutmeg. Honey. Orange and lemon. Fizzy sweets. Spicy oak on the finish.
Value for money: The very fact that 2157 bottles were produced in 2019 and are still available to buy in 2021 probably tells you that the price tag of £75 seemed a little high for a 10 year old blended malt. Of course when you scratch the surface a little and see the work that went into the creation of the casks and whatnot, the price is easier to understand but for many consumers, only smell and taste dictate whether a bottle is worth buying and where King of Trees is its own enemy, I think, is in not being instantly lovable. It comes across pleasant enough and a decent example of a Highland malt but I’m not sure it’s the kind of dram that grabs you by the collar and shouts “I’M WORTH £75” in your face. Upon repeat visits however it reveals more of itself, rewarding the patient sipper with hidden depths and new dimensions to explore. Expensive yes, but ultimately unique.
It would seem likely that we’ll be seeing more Scottish oak experimentation from the Whisky Works in the future and whilst it has been used quite sparingly here, there is enough to suggest that future output could be very interesting indeed. I must also confess to having tasted a sample of a Highland malt that had been drawn from one such Scottish cask and it was very, very good. Great to see such experimentation in the industry, especially from Whyte & Mackay who have sometimes seemed a wee bit old fashioned in the past. The Whisky Works should be on the radar of the more curious whisky drinkers already, but if not, King of Trees is the ideal place to start.
If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid commission on any purchases you make. Other retailers are available.
For more on The Whisky Works visit here.