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Strathisla was originally founded in 1786 as the Milltown, or Milton, distillery. One of a limited number of “legal” distilleries in the Speyside area at that time, it was established upon land leased from the Earl of Seafield. The distillery was constructed within an old building once used as a brewery for the local monastery. In 1830 it was sold to William Longmore, who established Longmore Ltd. The company oversaw significant rebuilding of the site after it was destroyed by fire in 1870.
The first half of the 20th century was an enormously challenging time for the whisky industry, with a dramatic downturn compounded further by War, Prohibition and the Great Depression. When the Second World War broke out, many distilleries were forced to halt production due to grain rationing. Whisky was in short supply and that scarcity resulted in a dramatic increase in value. Many distillers continued to sell to established customers at pre-war prices. Public opinion was very much against anyone who sought to profiteer from the crisis and the Government levied Excess Profits Tax at 100% for any profits above an aggregate of pre-war levels.
There were some who spied an opportunity however. A group of traders realised that by buying and selling to each other, over and over again, they could drive up prices and limit any one person’s liability for the Excess Profits Tax. One man involved in such a scheme was Jay Pomeroy, who used the profits to dig himself out of bankruptcy and buy Strathisla distillery in 1940.
Pomeroy was born Joseph Pomeranz in the Crimea. He was educated in Switzerland before coming to England in 1915. He was naturalised in 1929. Pomeroy used the money he made through whisky to indulge his passion for music and the theatre, staging concerts of Russian music at the Albert Hall. He contributed in no small way to the health and diversity of the Arts scene in London but his dodgy dealings would soon catch up with him.
Under current legislation the government couldn’t recover the tax so they took the unusual step of introducing retrospective legislation to plug the obvious loophole that had been exploited. Several fell foul of the new law, not least Pomeroy. All of his companies were put into liquidation and he was made bankrupt. He died in 1955 after collapsing in a London Hotel. He left personal debts of £500,000.
As for Strathisla, it was put up for auction and bought by James Barclay, acting on behalf of Chivas Brothers. It was the first distillery to be owned by Chivas and its malt remains at the heart of their blends today. The distillery visitor centre serves as the home of Chivas Regal and official single malt bottlings are few and far between, limited at present to a single 12 year old offering, bottled at 40%.
The dram I’ll be reviewing however, comes from Gordon & MacPhail’s Distillery Labels series. Gordon & MacPhail are one of the oldest independent bottlers in Scotland and as such, have long-standing agreements with various distillers for the supply of spirit. Their Distillery Label series allowed them to showcase single malts that would otherwise have been gobbled up by the blended Scotch industry. Though many of those distilleries have since developed their own range of bottlings, Gordon & MacPhail are able to continue releasing their own stock, under their own label.
The range has undergone something of a refresh recently, the most obvious change being an increase in strength to 46%. Their 2008 Strathisla retails for around £60 a bottle.
The Lightly Peated blog put together some excellent, in-depth information about Jay Pomeroy. Check it out here.
Smell: Sherry. Lots of sherry. Raisins. Sultanas. Cherry. Walnut. Leather. Tobacco. Softer Speyside character comes through after a while with honey, apple and pear. Little bit of malt too.
Taste: Well integrated sherry. Raisins. Prunes. Walnut again. Rich honey. Dry slightly musty oak on the finish.
Thoughts: I know some people hate the word I’m about to use but I feel it’s appropriate here. The lack of intense spice make this a wonderfully smooth sip. It coats the mouth beautifully and the sherry maturation feels somehow legitimate. Old fashioned even. Fantastic sherry-matured Speyside at a good price.
It feels like the spirit and the previous cask contents have really come together in a way you don’t often see. Sherry is certainly the driving force but it doesn’t completely dominate. Strathisla is still in there.
This bottle crossed my path at a recent tasting with the Good Spirits Co. I can’t ever remember another event where the first dram of the night was the one that stole my heart. Usually a tasting starts off slowly with something light to awaken the palate. Despite the whole line-up being of a high standard however, this was the dram I most wanted to own and I have not been disappointed with my purchase. Wonderful whisky. Without a doubt I’ll be revisiting more of the Distillery Labels in future. This kind of quality for this sort of price cannot be ignored.
For more on Gordon & MacPhail, visit here.
For more on Strathisla, visit here.